Common Scams in Costa Rica and How to Avoid Them

costa rica scams

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. It really is like paradise here. However, in order to have the perfect trip, you need to use a bit of caution.

We have been living in Costa Rica for almost four years now. We, fortunately, have never had any 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.

Anyway, here are all the common scams in Costa Rica and how you can also protect yourself.

Transportation Scams in Costa Rica

The Popped Tire Scam

car paquera

If you are planning on renting a car in Costa Rica (which we strongly suggest) then you will need to watch out for this scam. We have heard of 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 pulls 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. They will then direct you to call the police or the rental car company will send someone out to help you.

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 men 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 does reach to the outside area. Tell your contact person that if you can not find them that you will call them over Whatsapp, Facetime, etc.

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

The Costa Rica Rental Car Scam

car in costa rica

I’m not sure if I should really call this a scam, or just a really shady business tactic, but several rental car companies offer a really low rental car rate on either their website or through a third party site 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.

How you can avoid this

Before renting a car, make sure the price you are quoted is the absolute total price including the mandatory Liability Protection. We have had this happen to us and smartened up. We started renting with the only company we really trust here called Adobe.

Because we love them so much we have partnered with Adobe to bring our readers a 10% to 20% discount on your rental car. You can read more about renting a car and grab your discount.

FIND OUT HOW TO GET UP TO 10% OFF YOUR CAR RENTAL IN COSTA RICA!

The Broken Taxi Meter Scam

road to corcovado

Taxi drivers love to scam people in Costa Rica and with Uber now being semi-legal (it exists in some sort of legal gray zone at the moment) the problem is becoming worse. Many taxi drivers will tell you that their taximeter is broken and overcharge you or they won’t reset it from the previous ride so you’ll have to pay more.

How you can avoid this

Don’t take taxis in Costa Rica. We depend solely on Uber in Costa Rica because their prices are generally half of the price of a taxi. Also, in our experience, the Uber drivers in Costa Rica are extremely nice and helpful. We’ve never had the same experience with a taxi. If you do have to take a taxi make sure it is a legal, registered taxi and that the driver sets the meter to zero before the drive begins.

Pirate Taxi Scam

costa rica taxi

This scam tends to occur most often at bus stations in San Jose. When you exit a bus you will be inundated with men 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.

The Long Taxi Route Scam

costa rica road

It is not unusual for taxi drivers to take especially long routes with tourists. They want to make the most money possible and it is easy to prey on unsuspecting travelers.

We have actually had this happen to us multiple times. Luckily we actually know the city of San Jose really well and have always politely called out the taxi drivers by saying “Oh actually there is a faster route. Go this way.” Busted!!!

How You Can Avoid This

On the Google Maps app you can download offline maps of a route. While you are in the taxi just follow along with the route on Google Maps. If you see that your taxi driver is about to try to take a longer route just politely call them out.

We actually had this happen once with Uber as well. We had put my sister in an Uber to the airport and they took her some crazy long way. We then contacted Uber and they got rid of the charges. Uber is actually really good about this.

The Staged Car Accident Scam

scams in costa rica

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.

 

Money Scams in Costa Rica

The Costa Rica Exchange Rate Scam

shopping in costa rica

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

Make sure you know the exact exchange rate and count out how much money you receive. If you’d like to completely avoid this 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.

The Double Charge Scam

food costa rica

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.

We have a complete post on paying in Costa Rica.

The ATM Tourist Scam

costa rica scams - ATM

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 that allow them to read your card details.

Also, watch out for suspicious people at ATM’s. We had a friend who was recently followed home from an ATM by men who attempted to rob her.

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 extra pieces to the ATM than ususal, go to another ATM.

General Scams in Costa Rica

The Fellow Gringo Scam

safety in costa rica

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. 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!

The Fake Costa Rica Tour Guide Scam

Manuel Antonio line

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. You 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.

Spilled Drink Scam

drink spill

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.

The Fake Parking Lot Scam

Manuel antonio 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 national park. It includes details about how to get to the official lot.

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. We just want you to have an amazing time visiting!

If you do need to get in touch with the police their emergency number is 9-1-1.

If you’d like some more safety tips please check out these two articles:

How To Stay Safe in Costa Rica

Why You Need Travel Insurance in Costa Rica

Have you heard about or experienced any other travel scams in Costa Rica? Please share your experiences in the comments section to help out your fellow travelers. Also, let us know if you have any questions about any of these scams. We are always happy to help you out!

Costa Rica is an amazing country but there are some scams which you should be aware of before visiting. Find out how to protect yourself. #CostaRica #scams
Costa Rica is an amazing country but there are some scams which you should be aware of before visiting. Find out how to protect yourself. #CostaRica #scams

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We met in Virginia, moved to Germany, and now live in sunny Costa Rica. It was a spontaneous decision to move here, but it was the best decision!

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24 Responses

  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. 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. ?

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