While the news of pipeline gasoline thefts has been in the headlines recently, the practice of scamming customers who are refueling at the gas stations is old news. In a place where the minimum wage is roughly US $5.25 a day, everyday transactions are opportunities for workers to supplement their income. Gas station attendants sometimes take advantage of those opportunities, and that’s why they are often sporting a big smile when a gringo drives in.
Opportunity knocks loudly when you pull your rental car up to the gas pump and tell the guy to “fill it up.” Although many stations here have implemented “attendant controls” including required smartphone input of pump number, amount to fill and employee code, not all attendants will draw your attention to the pump to show that it has been reset to zero before they start pumping. You may be paying for fuel someone else already paid for, and those extra pesos are destined for the attendant’s pocket.
While the gas is pumping, attendants will quickly ask to check the oil. Say yes and pop the hood for the next opportunity: after a minute at the front of the car screened by the open hood the attendant holds up an empty oil container to show you the car took a whole liter. You’re feeling good for doing the right thing, but he likely didn’t show you the dipstick beforehand. You didn’t need any oil; he just showed you an empty container he keeps on the side rack and charged you 150 pesos. Too late now, but at least make sure you ask for a receipt in case you get lucky and have a rental car company that reimburses the expense.
Whether you’re in a rental or your own car, paying cash for the gas opens a couple more doors. The number one rip off by far is by “palming.” Palming happens when the gas station attendant sees you pulling US $50’s out of your wallet for your fill up, and he pulls a US $20 from his left pocket as he takes your 50 dollar bill in his right hand – all the while chatting you up about your wonderful stay here. He’ll turn quickly to look at the pump to double check the amount and then turn back to you showing you the $20 and apologetically tell you it’s not enough. You immediately think you messed up because you weren’t paying attention (after all, greenbacks are all green) and hand him more. That trick is big money.
Next on the hit list is expecting change from your US dollar payment. You’ve likely noticed that each gas station posts a sign with a single rate on it, for example, “CAMBIO 18.60”. That’s the USD/MXN exchange rate – the number of pesos they will give you for each dollar. All pumps ring up in pesos. The attendant sees your US dollars and keys in the 750 peso pump amount on his phone and turns the phone around and shows you $42.61. You hand him $45 with a smile and say keep the change. You might do a quick mental calculation using an easy 20 peso conversion rate to rationalize the amount and figure it’s close enough. Meanwhile, the attendant keyed in 17.60 (not 18.60) to calculate the US amount and has now supplemented his pay with your transaction by $2.29 plus the tip. The pay is good today.
Using pesos only? Palming also works with the local currency, by gaming the number of notes you hand over. Pass the attendant two or more notes of the same denomination along with some change, and he may fumble and accidentally drop the handful and come up showing you that you came up short by 100 or 200 pesos, then it’s his word against yours. Get out more pesos.
Think paying with a credit card is a better bet? Think again, especially if the attendant takes the card out of sight to process. Always keep the receipts to remind you of the transaction dates and check your credit card statements for unknown transactions.
The gaming is not limited to individual attendants either. Pemex stations are privately owned, and the corporation or government isn’t diligent about measuring whether each pump is correctly calibrated to metering out the correct volume of gas for each transaction. It is possible you are getting only 30 oz. of gas when a liter is 35 oz. A few station owners use this tactic, but you’ll never know which ones are and which aren’t unless you’re on empty and fill right up. If your tank holds 50 liters and gas is priced 20 pesos per liter, and the pump total shows 1,300 pesos, then the math doesn’t add up and you are being taken, again.
So to sum it all up, you’ll unknowingly donate to the local economy just by driving a vehicle. Who knew? Best advice is to get those US greenbacks converted to pesos and pay attention to what you are doing. Get out of the car, look at the dipstick, watch the oil get added, count out your bills as you pass them over and take the time to calculate your USD exchange on your own phone. And just before you turn the ignition key and drive off, count your change. Last time I gassed up the attendant tried to short me 100 pesos thinking I wouldn’t notice. When I called him out on it guess what he did? – He gave me that great big Pemex smile and handed me the extra 100 pesos. The best part of a good scam is you never knew it happened! Just keep smiling.