16 Common Scams in Costa Rica and How to Avoid Them

Costa Rica is an amazing country, but as with almost every country, there are some common scams in Costa Rica that you should be aware of before visiting.

We want you to fall in love with this country, as we have since moving here in 2016. It really is like paradise! However, in order to have the perfect trip, you need to use a bit of caution.

We, fortunately, have never had any major scams committed against us. However, that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to do some of these things to us. We’ve always just been lucky enough to catch on quickly and avoid bad situations.

So, we created this guide to 16 common scams in Costa Rica to help you know what to look out for and to help you protect yourself while traveling.

1. Intercepted Transportation Scam

This scam involves stopping you while leaving the airport. Exiting the airport (especially in San Jose) can be an overwhelming experience. 

You will be bombarded with tons of people asking if you need a taxi. 

There is usually a large crowd of people waiting to pick up travelers. It can be difficult to find the person who is meeting you from your rental car company, tour company, etc.

We have heard of people approaching confused travelers and offering to help. They will ask who you are looking for and will then offer to call that person for you.

After “placing the call” they will tell you. “OK the person who was supposed to pick you up is having car troubles. I told them that I will drive you to the meeting point instead.”

Once you get in the car or away from the crowd of the airport they will either rob you or actually drive you to where you need to go but won’t let you out of the car until you pay a large sum of money.

How You Can Avoid This

Have your contact person specify a particular place to meet up at the airport. Also, there is free wifi at the airport and it reaches to the outside area. 

Tell your contact person that if you can not find them you will call them over Whatsapp, Facetime, etc.

We also have a complete guide to landing at the San Jose airport for more info.

2. The Costa Rica Rental Car Scam

car rental liberia airport

I’m not sure if I should really call this a scam, or just a really shady business tactic. This involves renting a car in Costa Rica. 

Several rental car companies offer a really low rental car rate on either their website or through third-party sites like Expedia. 

You will think that you have secured a super cheap rental car until you actually go to pick up your car. It is then that you will discover that Costa Rica has mandatory rental car insurance which hasn’t been included in your price.

This is completely true, Costa Rica does have mandatory rental car insurance, but because you were unaware of it they now have you hooked. You need that rental car and will end up paying hundreds of dollars more than you expected to pay.

Our Experience

This one actually happened to my mom on her first visit to Costa Rica. She booked a rental car on a big booking website at a super reasonable rate. When she arrived to pick up her car she started to get nervous because all the other people picking up their cars were visibly frustrated and arguing with the employees. 

And, sure enough, when we got to the counter we learned that they hadn’t included the insurance costs. In reality, my mom had to pay SEVERAL HUNDRED DOLLARS more than she had been quoted.

But, at that point, she couldn’t really do anything. She needed a rental car. So, she just paid it. But, it left us with such a bad feeling. 

How You Can Avoid This

After this happened I started researching which car companies are trustworthy in Costa Rica and came across a local car rental company called Adobe Rent-a-Car.

Since then, we only rent and recommended cars in Costa Rica with Adobe. They are completely upfront with their costs and an all-around excellent company. 

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16 Common Scams in Costa Rica and How to Avoid Them

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3. The Popped Tire Scam

One scam that we have heard about is people getting their tires slashed while stopped at a red light or while driving on a slow road.

When you go to pull your car over to check the tire someone a few cars behind you will pull over to “help” you.

In reality, this is a two-person con. The person who slashed your tire and the person who pulled over to help you are in on this together. The helpful person will then rob you and take off.

How to Avoid This

There is not much you can do to avoid someone slashing your tires. However, if you do need to pull over to check the tire, try to do it in a full parking lot.

If you are in a remote area and this is not an option it is best to keep your car doors locked and call your rental car company.

16 Common Scams in Costa Rica and How to Avoid Them

They will then direct you to call the police or the rental car company will send someone out to help you.

Keep in mind that in Costa Rica the emergency number is 9-1-1.

4. Online Booking Scams

This scam involves booking hotels, house rentals, activities, transportation, etc by companies that don’t actually exist. Usually this happens when you see a deal that sounds almost too good to pass up. You will pay online and once you will arrive in Costa Rica you will be completely ghosted by the company or realize they don’t exist at all.

How You Can Avoid This

The best way to avoid this is by only booking through reputable sites.

For example:

For hotels, we always book through Booking.com

For vacation rentals, we like VRBO

For activities we suggest Viator

All of these are third-party sites, but at least if something goes wrong you have the backing of a large company to help you sort it out.

5. The Gas Station Scam

All gas stations in Costa Rica are full-service. that means you will stay in your car while an employee fills your tank.

You do not need to tip them or anything. However, if they wash your windshield, I often give them a small tip as a thank you.

Anyway, the gas station scam involves the employees distracting you so that they can overcharge you.

How to Prevent It

Always keep an eye on how much the total is at the gas pump. Make sure is is at 0 when they start pumping and make sure you can see the total when they stop pumping. Then, always double check your receipt.

Keep in mind that gas stations are government-regulated in Costa Rica. That means that the price will be the same no matter which gas station you go to.

One time I was at a gas station in Costa Rica with my dad. The gas attendant meant to put in 20,000 colones into the credit card machine but accidentally put in extra zero.

So the total was 200,000 (or about $370 USD) instead of 20,000 (or $37 USD).

The attendant realized his mistake before he even gave my dad the receipt to sign. He was so embarrassed and quickly took care of it to get the charge reversed.

I say this because mistakes do happen. Don’t instantly think the worst, but sometimes scams also happen.

6. Pirate Taxi Scam

taxi manuel antonio

This scam tends to occur most often at bus stations in San Jose. When you exit a bus you will be inundated with people asking if you need a taxi. When you say “yes” they will take you to their nearby “taxi.”

In actuality, these are not legal taxi drivers. Upon dropping you off at the location you need to go they will demand you pay them over $100 for a taxi ride that should cost about $20.

At this point, you can not do much because your luggage is in their trunk. You end up paying just to get out of the situation.

How You Can Avoid This

Never take unofficial taxis in Costa Rica. You can tell if a taxi is official by its red or orange color and the yellow triangle on the driver’s side door.

We have a complete guide to taxi’s in Costa Rica which will help you with more info on avoiding pirate taxis.

7. The Overcharged Taxi Scam

This scam actually happens in official taxis in Costa Rica. Usually, you should have no issues, but occasionally we have heard about taxi drivers not turning on the taxi meter or saying “oh I have a broken taxi meter.” They then majorly overcharge you. 

How You Can Avoid This

Taxi drivers don’t want to get in trouble. The first thing you can do is take a picture of their license plate when you get in the taxi. And don’t be shy about it. Let the driver see you do it. 

By doing that, the taxi driver is likely to follow the legal rules because they are scared that you could report them. 

Once in the taxi, make sure that they turn on the meter. If they don’t, ask them to. If they say it is broken, tell them you will find another taxi.

8. The Staged Car Accident Scam

This is somewhat similar to the popped tire scam. The scam involves a car behind you lightly tapping you at a remote traffic light. When you pull over to check the damage they will then rob you.

We have actually even heard of this happening the other way around as well. Someone in front of you will slam on their breaks so that you tap them. Again, when you go to check the damage of your car they will rob you.

How You Can Avoid This

There isn’t much you can do to avoid this. However, if you think this is happening to you it is best to stay in your rental car with it locked and immediately call your rental car company as well as the police.

9. The Costa Rica Exchange Rate Scam

costa rica currency exchange airport

We had this almost happen to us while crossing the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There are verified people who can exchange currency for you on the border, but that doesn’t mean they will actually give you the correct amount.

We knew the exchange rate ahead of time (download the free app XE Currency to always be up on the correct exchange rate) and the person exchanging money for us confirmed that this was the correct rate. However, he then tried to give us about $10 less than he was supposed to. 

Luckily we counted out the money he had given us and told him he owed us more money. We had a friend that is a native Costa Rican with us who argued with him until we got the correct rate. This man obviously thought he could pull one over on stupid gringos.

How to avoid this

I suggest avoiding currency exchange places in general. Even the ones at the airport typically give a really bad exchange rate.

Instead, you can always ask you bank at home to order colones for you before your trip. Usually this has no fee. I suggest doing it at least two weeks in advance because sometimes they will have to order the currency for you.

If you need money in Costa Rica, I suggest getting money out of an ATM.

Check with your bank to find out about international ATM fees. I have an account with Charles Schwab and all my international ATM fees are automatically refunded into my account.

10. The Double Charge Scam

This happened to someone Thomas knows last time they were visiting. They didn’t want to deal with carrying a lot of cash or exchanging money so they decided to depend entirely on credit cards while traveling in Costa Rica.

This seemed like a good idea until they returned to Germany and their credit card was accruing charges from Costa Rica. It turned out that one of the places they used their credit card at had copied their card info and was charging them multiple times on their credit card machine.

How to avoid this

At large supermarket chains, reputable restaurants, and large hotels I wouldn’t worry too much about using your credit card. You will likely be completely fine.

However, at small mini markets, little restaurant etc. I suggest trying to pay with cash as often as possible.

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Also, I suggest checking your credit card transactions every day online. That way, if something looks suspicious you can immediately report it to your credit card company and have it taken care of. 

We have a complete post on currency and paying in Costa Rica for more info.

11. The Dollars or Colones Scam

I saw this recently in the news. A guy was traveling in Costa Rica and took an Uber.

At the end of his journey he paid with his debit card. The total was about 30,000 colones. That is equivalent to about $53 US dollars.

Somehow, he was instead charged 30,000 dollars! 

So, since he paid with a debit card it overdrafted his account and he was stuck without any money. Ugh!

I don’t know if this was a scam, a genuine mistake by the taxi driver, or actually an issue with his bank that charged him incorrectly, but either way, it is something to be aware of.

If you’re interested, you can read the story here.

How to avoid this

Always ask for a receipt and double-check it. Also, avoid paying with debit card if you can. Credit card is always better for this reason.

12. The ATM Tourist Scam

Always use caution when using ATM’s. I don’t think it is super common in Costa Rica, but I have heard of ATM’s having card readers installed by thieves. This allows them to read your card details.

Also, watch out for suspicious people at ATM’s. We have heard of people being followed after taking cash out and then being robbed.

How You Can Avoid This

Only use an ATM that is in a more populated area during the day. Always look at the slot where you put your card in. If there looks to be unusual pieces attached to the ATM, go to another one.

13. The Fellow Gringo Scam

san jose cover

We read recently about two guys pulling this particular scam in San Jose to passing tourists. The men doing the scam speak English and stop tourists by asking where they are from in the US.

The men pretend to be from the US living in Costa Rica (or maybe they actually are from the US). After striking up a conversation they will ask if you’d like to get a drink/ explore the area with them etc.

Once they get you away from a touristy area they will offer you free weed (which you obviously should never accept) or they will secretly plant it on you. They will then claim to be an undercover cop and force you to go to an ATM to “pay them off.”

I’ve even heard of them calling some scary looking friends to keep an eye on you so you can’t run while withdrawing money.

How you can avoid this

I hate to say that you shouldn’t be friendly, but if someone seems a bit suspicious, they probably are. It’s never a good idea to go off from a busy area with someone you’ve just met. Always trust your instincts!

14. The Fake Costa Rica Tour Guide Scam

We have heard of people standing on the street in touristy areas (Manuel Antonio, Jaco etc.) and asking if you would like to take a tour. They often dress nicely and sometimes even go as far as to have a shirt on from a tour company.

The offer for the tour will be super amazing. When they have you hooked they will tell you the details of where to meet for the tour and that they need a deposit ahead of time.

After giving the deposit you will never see them again.

When you arrive for your tour there will be nobody else there.

Sometimes the worst part of this is not even losing the money but the wasted day of your vacation when you thought you had a great tour set up.

How You Can Avoid This

Only book tours through official companies. Your hotel can always help you with tours if you need. If you plan to book through a shop just check out their online reviews ahead of time.

15. Spilled Drink Scam

We have heard of people “accidentally” spilling a drink on tourists in a crowded bar. The criminal will then act very apologetic and try to help you wipe the drink up. While you are distracted an accomplice will pickpocket from you.

How You Can Avoid This

If someone spills something on you just tell them that you do not need help cleaning it up. Be aware of your surroundings and hopefully you will be OK.

16. The Fake Parking Lot Scam

marino ballena national park parking

We almost fell for this one in Manuel Antonio. This tourist scam involves someone standing on the side of the road near popular tourist destinations such as national parks. 

When you drive by they will tell you that the official parking lot is full or closed for repairs. 

They will then charge you about double what the normal parking lot costs.

How You Can Avoid This

Always look up if a national park has an official parking lot ahead of time and see exactly where it is located and how much it costs. 

If you are heading to Manuel Antonio we have a complete guide to the Manuel Antonio national park. It includes details about how to get to the official lot.

How to Stay Safe

Safety during your travels in Costa Rica should always be you number one concern.

Check out our guide to safety for all of our tips.

Learning Basic Spanish Phrases

Knowing a few key phrases can help you avoid misunderstandings and navigate tricky situations.

We created a complete guide to basic Spanish to help you out.

Register with STEP

If you are a US citizen, we definitely suggest registering with STEP. This is a program put on by the government.

It allows them to get in contact with you in the case of a natural disaster, terrorist attack, etc. in whichever country you are visiting.

Keep Valuables Hidden

If you have an expensive camera, cell phone, jewelry, etc. it is best not to make it overly visible.

Pro Tip: Make a photocopy of your passport and carry the paper copy with you. Store the photocopy in your safe in your hotel room. 

Purchase Travel Insurance

Travel insurance doesn’t just cover you for injury. It is also there to protect you if items get stolen or you get scammed.

Our go-to travel insurance for Costa Rica travel is a company called HeyMondo.

Confirm Prices Before Committing

Before ordering food, taking a taxi, or purchasing items, always confirm the price to avoid any unexpected charges.

Stay Alert in Crowded Areas

Scammers often operate in busy tourist spots, markets, and transportation hubs. Stay vigilant and be aware of your surroundings.

Be Skeptical of “Too Good to Be True” Offers

Whether it’s a street deal or an online bargain, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Trust you gut!

Secure Your Belongings

Use anti-theft bags and backpacks that have lockable zippers and slash-proof materials. Consider using a money belt or hidden pouch for essential documents and cash.

This especially applies in crowded areas such as downtown San Jose.

Limit Cash and Valuables

Only carry the amount of cash you’ll need for the day, and leave unnecessary valuables at your accommodation in a secure safe.

The Positive Side of Costa Rica

manuel antonio beach

Yes, there are some bad people in Costa Rica that may try to target you because you are a tourist, but in general, that is usually not the case.

Costa Ricans are typically the most friendly and helpful people you will ever meet. So, in general you shouldn’t be scared to ask for help or to talk to people.

In fact, when Thomas and I moved to Costa Rica we were very standoffish towards people. See, we had been living in northern Germany for four years, and random people would never go out of their way to help you there.

When we moved to Costa Rica our first landlord spent her Saturday morning showing us around the neighborhood and helping us buy furniture. We thought for sure that she wanted something from us, but no, she was just genuinely nice.

Then we had random people helping me to find a job, people we barely knew took us on day trips to help us get better acclimated etc.

It took Thomas and I a long time to get used to this, but now we love it. The culture is very much about helping each other to have the best out of life.

So, what I’m trying to say is that yes, you need to use caution and always somewhat have your guard up. But, in general, people here are absolutely amazing. 

Cultural Norms to be Aware Of

There are some practices that at first might feel like they are leading up to a scam, but are actually normal things in Costa Rica.

Here are a few things you should know. 

Tipping Practices

Misinterpretation: In many restaurants in Costa Rica, a service charge (typically 10%) is automatically included in the bill. If you are visiting from a country where tipping is customary you might think you’re being scammed.

Reality: The service charge is standard. Additional tipping is appreciated but it’s not mandatory.

“Tico Time”

Misinterpretation: Appointments or scheduled events might start later than the set time, which could be mistaken as unreliability or even as a no-show scam.

Reality: “Tico Time” refers to the more relaxed approach to punctuality in Costa Rica. It’s a cultural norm, especially in non-business settings. People here take the Pura Vida lifestyle seriously.

Informal Sales

Misinterpretation: People might approach you on the beach or in public places offering to sell handmade crafts, fruits, or services (for example a boat tour or jet ski rental). You might feel this is a scam or an attempt to overcharge.

Reality: Many locals make a living or supplement their income by selling goods or services this way. While it’s always good to be cautious, many of these sellers are genuine.

Friendliness and Personal Questions

Misinterpretation: Costa Ricans (or Ticos, as they often call themselves) are known for their friendliness. They might ask personal questions or engage in what you might consider overly familiar conversations. This can lead to discomfort or suspicion.

Reality: Warmth and friendliness are parts of Tico culture. Questions about one’s family, reasons for visiting, or opinions about Costa Rica are often just ways to make conversation and show genuine interest.

Paying for Parking

Misinterpretation: If you park on the side of the road or in a public park lot you might see a person in a neon vest that helps you park. You might assume that it is some kind of scam.

Reality: These people often appoint themselves to this position. You do not have to pay them, but it is best to do so. You can pay them as you leave. Just give them a dollar or two. They will watch your car and make sure it is protected.

Conclusion: Costa Rica Scams

We are not trying to scare you off with these common Costa Rica scams, but we just want you to be aware of things that sometimes can happen.

Hopefully, by reading this list you feel more prepared and can avoid any uncomfortable situations during your vacation to paradise.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out!

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Costa Rica Travel Details: What You Need to Know

πŸš— Should I rent a car in Costa Rica?

Having a rental car will give you the most flexibility when traveling in Costa Rica. This will also allow you to take fun day trips on your own.

πŸ„πŸ½ How can I book things to do?

We find that Viator tends to have the most comprehensive selection of activities with secure booking and good cancellation policies.

🍍 I’m overwhelmed with planning. Can you help?

Of course! I suggest joining our Facebook group for specific questions and head to our Start Here Page to get started planning.

✈️ What is the best way to book a flight?

Usually, we have the best luck finding great prices with Skyscanner. Check for flights to both San Jose Airport (SJO) and Liberia Airport (LIR).

πŸ›οΈ What is the best way to book my Costa Rica hotels?

We highly suggest Booking.com for hotel bookings and typically use VRBO for Costa Rica vacation rentals.

πŸ—£οΈWhat is the main language in Costa Rica?

The main language in Costa Rica is Spanish. Most people working in tourism speak at least some English.

πŸ’° What is the currency in Costa Rica?

The currency used in Costa Rica is the Costa Rican colΓ³n (CRC). However, the US dollar is widely accepted in most tourist areas

πŸ“ž What is the best way to stay connected?

An eSIM from Airalo is the easiest way to get 4G data while traveling in Costa Rica.

🌴 Is Costa Rica safe?

Generally, Costa Rica is considered safe for tourists. However, like any travel destination, it’s best to use caution and be aware of your surroundings.

πŸ›‚ Do you need a passport to go to Costa Rica?

Yes, Costa Rica is its own country. You will need a passport to visit.

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24 Comments

  1. That car rental scam is spot on. Good to know about Adobe. I go to CR a lot and occasionally need to rent

  2. I can confirm the parking lot scam. I saw this in Manuel Antonio myself. Luckily we were with a tour company, but the aggressiveness of the scammers was a little scary. The guy even tried it on the tour bus driver, but I think the driver told him to go away in Spanish, in possibly not so nice words πŸ˜‰

    We did not get scammed, but a few people tried. I still would go back in a heartbeat. Pura Vida all the way!

    This is a great guide, you guys did your homework.

  3. Good day! I’m going to PV and Bocas today. How do I recognize the Uber drivers if you say they are almost legal. Do they have their stickers on the windshield?

    1. Hi Jackie! To use Uber you will need to use the Uber app. Then when a car comes to pick you up just say “Who are you picking up?” and with the Uber app they will know your name. That way you can be sure that they are actually legit and not some random person pretending to be your Uber driver. They don’t have any stickers on their window. However, taxis in Costa Rica are red and usually have a large yellow triangle on the side. That is how you know a taxi is a legit taxi (in case you can’t get an uber).

  4. David from Travelscams.org says:

    Awesome article, thanks for the tips! Indeed, Colombia has agreat mix of different sceneries and attractions such as the famous cloud forest of Monteverde, rolling surf in Salsa Brava and Tamarindo and the colonial architecture in San Jose. However, crime rate is high and petty crime is common in tourist areas.

    Do be wary of fraudulent park guides, fake border crossing agent, drink or food spiking, long taxi routes, atm scams, street money exchange, and many more!

  5. Here’s another tip. If you have to take a red taxi, make sure the name on the yellow sign on top of the taxi says Coopetico. They are the best taxi drivers compared to the other red taxis. ?

    1. I didn’t know that. Thanks for the tip Elena! That will definitely help other travelers. πŸ™‚