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The island has been battered in the past by hurricanes. Thus, some locals are more determined (and more clever) than others to earn an income. Beware these scams. Your net loss would be minor - about $20 to $50. But the psychological sting of being victimized can really dent an otherwise nice vacation.
Note, foremost, that Cozumel is extremely safe. Meandering the streets late at night, a visitor will not feel any danger. The locals are extremely friendly and there are no apparent physical threats to tourists. Police forces are visible, but the only police action to be seen on Cozumel is the rare intersection traffic control. But that being said, mind your wallet, and beware these scams.
This scam in Cozumel, can happen to anyone but most often to the unsuspecting tourist . If you rent a scooter or car, be aware at the gas pump. It works like this, or some variation thereof.
How It Works:
You pull up to the pump. The attendant quickly approaches and asks how much fuel you want. You're in a rental, and you need to replace half a tank you've used, so you're not sure.
The attendant helps you guess, "About 250 pesos worth."
"Sure, sounds good," you say.
You sit in the driver's seat and wait while the hose is inserted into your tank, the pump hums and clicks (it's a modern pump, just like those you see at home). A minute later the attendant holds out his hand for the 250 pesos, and you pay him. You look at the fuel gauge to see if you've replaced enough of your rental gas. The needle doesn't move.
The attendant asks, "Was it enough?"
You reply, "I'm not sure, the needle didn't move."
The attendant says, "Turn on the engine." You do, and the needle does not move.
"Turn is off again and on again," he says. You do, and again the needle doesn't move.
The attendant nudges your small rental car, rocking it side-to-side a bit. The fuel gauge is stuck in the same spot, motionless. So you wonder if the sensor in the gas tank is broken. It's a very old rental (most vehicles on Cozumel are 10+ years old). So you figure something is stuck or broken.
"No biggie," you say to the attendant, satisfied that you put about $20 USD into the tank. And you drive away.
What Has Happened:
You pulled into a gas station. An attendant did, frankly, nothing to indicate that any fuel was pumped. You handed him money and happily drove away.
What To Do:
First and foremost, upon stopping in front of the pump, look at the pump to ensure that the dollar (peso) amount and fuel amount both read "0.00." Before the attendant begins pumping, he will glance over at you, make eye contact with you, giving you the opportunity to verify that the pump reads zero.
It is also wise to get out of your car, stand there, and watch the attendant. Don't be a passive, faceless victim sitting quietly in your car. Get out and make the man face you. This makes you a more imposing force, and less likely to be a vicitim.
Despite the above two suggestions, and despite that the pumps appear modern, the pumps can be "tricked" and even locals have been scammed. So the pump reading zero at the start is not a guarantee. Watch your fuel gauge, trust it, and be sensible.
One local tour guide tells the story of an attendant who attempted to scam him. As soon as he called him out on it, the attendant simply laughed and proceeded to fill the customer's tank - this time for real.
All tourists, upon landing on Cozumel (or the nearby Playa de Carmen, Chichen Itza, Tulum, or other tourist destinations) are immediately approached by "wranglers." These store employees, or owners, stand outside their shops and try to entice tourists through their doors. It's a strong sales pitch that never ends.
One such wrangler is the tour kiosk guy. These small kiosks are located at or near the pier, attracting tourists traveling between Cozumel island and Playa de Carmen on the mainland. The logic being that any tourist crossing the water will want to "do something" once they arrive on the other side.
How It Works:
You approach the kiosk and ask, "Do you sell tickets to Hidden Worlds?"
The kiosk attendant thinks for a moment, hand on his chin, then says, "Ah yes, I do know this one."
He taps away at his laptop (which you cannot see). A moment later he proclaims he has found it, and he invites you around behind his desk to see for yourself. You join him and look at the computer screen. The salesman quickly points out the URL in the web browser (it reads "http://www.hiddenworlds.com" or something close to it). And the man quickly scrolls down to the bottom of the page. Your eyes quickly scan images of people snorkeling, smiling, fishies, etc. At the bottom of the web page the man points to the park entrance fees: $99 for adults.
"Okay," you say, feeling reasonably satisfied that you've seen the web page info for yourself. You step back, re-establishing your personal space. The salesman turns his laptop back towards himself.
"Do you want to do that?" the salesman asks.
"Sure!" you say.
The salesman picks up his phone and makes a call. He speaks to someone on the other end in Spanish. Much information is exchanged.
"When do you want to go?" the salesman asks you, still holding the phone. "They have 9:00am, 11:00am and 1:00pm tours."
"11:00am tomorrow?" you ask.
"What's your name?"
You give your name. The salesman fills out a small form, all the while chatting on the phone in Spanish. You hear your name being given, etc. This all feels very legitimate.
Eventually the salesman hangs up. He finishes filling out the small form and he shows it to you. It has your name on it, the "down payment" of $50 has been filled in, the "remaining balance" of $49 has been entered, there's a phone number or two (just in case you need help), etc. The salesman flips the paper over and scribbles down an address.
"Here's what you do," he says. "Tomorrow you grab a taxi and give him this address. He'll know exactly where it is and when you get to that building, they'll pay for the taxi. At the end of your tour, the taxi will pick you up again and return you to your hotel."
Okay, sounds good so far.
"You pay $50 deposit now," he says, "and the remaining $49 when you arrive at the tour tomorrow."
Still sounds good. You pay the man $50 and walk away happy that you have plans for the next day. You've heard great things about "Hidden Worlds" and are happy it was so easy to book a tour.
What Has Happened:
The web page the salesman showed you was fake. Or it belonged to another tour, not yours (he brought up the wrong web page, but then typed over the URL in the address bar with the "correct" URL - but did not navigate to it). The $99 entrance fee you saw online was either fake, or it belonged to a different, more expensive park.
You paid $99 for a park with an entrance fee of $49. The $50 "down payment" went entirely to the salesman.
What Else Has Happened:
You take the taxi. You arrive at an office. A shuttle with other tourists picks you up and drives you to the park entrance. The sign overheard (and the signs everywhere else) reads "Rio Secreto." This is not the park you asked for. This park has an entrance fee of $49. Again, the extra $50 went entirely to the man who sent you to the wrong tour.
Now you're faced with a choice: stand up for your rights, refuse this tour, take a taxi back to the pier and confront the guy? This wastes half a day of your precious vacation. Or take the tour you've been given, and accept your fate?
Most likely, not wanting to ruin your fun, you accept this professional-looking tour. And it is a good tour, and a worthy park. But it's not what you paid for.
What To Do:
Plan ahead. These "tour kiosks" are a convenience for tourists who didn't bother planning ahead. In that regard, they are a service for the lazy (but both scenarios above still involve outright deceit).
Moped Credit Card Deposit Scam:
You go to rent a moped. The merchant asks for your license and credit card. While you are talking and excited about vacation, the merchant hands your card back and states his machine is broken. He takes your sign and sail cards for a deposit instead and adds it to the contract. There is no evidence that he ever took your card. When the slip comes out of the machine, he forges your name and it shows up on your bank statement. NEVER use a credit card in Cozumel for anything. Take cash.