Avoiding common tourist scams in China
Nothing gets me more steamed than being taken for a sucker. And although the Chinese on the whole are honest, hard-working people, you’re bound to have some bad apples in a country with such a huge (and still mostly poor) population. For some, the seemingly endless supply of rich and easy-to-fool laowai (foreigner) is too tempting.
I think the reason many foreign tourists get scammed in China is because they let their guard down. As I pointed out in the “Safety & Crime” section, they reason (correctly) that the harsh criminal penalties deter people from crime. But there’s a considerable difference between committing an outright crime (like theft) and scamming tourists.
The smarter con artists and scammers operate in “grey area” of the law, where the only proof against them is your word against theirs (yes, even in China, the police need proof). In other words, many scams have a high reward-to-risk ratio. In most cases, the police won’t or can’t do anything if you’ve been duped. In fact, some of these scams are completely legal and so will continue to take in suckers for years to come.
Chinese police are often dumbfounded by how foreigners are so easily fooled. Con artists (who can speak English) love foreigners compared to Chinese locals for a number of reasons: (1) Generally carry more cash, and (2) are often happy to engage in conversation with a total stranger. They know that Westerners are more conditioned to “not be rude” by walking away. In contrast, the Chinese are very slow to trust strangers and will often completely ignore anyone who approaches them on the street. They’re often savvy to common scams too. (3) Foreign tourists are less likely to call the police because of the language and time constraints. I imagine most are embarrassed and just write off the loss as an unrecoverable “lesson learned.”
And don’t think that you’re too savvy to be fooled. These scams can be sophisticated and continue to snare even the most experienced travelers.
Knowledge is power so pass it on to other travelers!
Practice English/Tea Ceremony Scam:
WHERE: A (mostly) legal and very popular and long-running scam. Especially popular in the tourist-friendly parts of Beijing (like Wangfujing shopping district and Houhai Lake nightlife district) and Shanghai (Nanjing Road shopping district and adjacent Peoples’ Park). Solo male travelers are the suckers of choice.
THE SCAM: While there are variations on this theme, the basic scam goes like this:
- A Chinese person — often a seemingly innocent-looking girl — approaches you. After gaining your trust with some innocent chitchat, she suggests going somewhere to practice English (or karaoke, etc). They also like the Buddy System: it might be a harmless-looking young couple or two young ladies who ask you to take their photo in the park and “happen” to be on their way to a tea ceremony. Would you like to join?
- Overjoyed by the chance to have a genuine Chinese encounter with a local (yes, they know the laowai too well), you enthusiastically accept. You follow them somewhere to sample some tea or whatever. Later, you’re presented with an eye-popping bill (often hundreds of US dollars). By now, your new friend may have already disappeared after using the restroom (collecting their hefty commission on their way out to troll for a new sucker). You start to storm out….only to find a couple of goons blocking the door! You’ve just been Punk’ed fool!
RULES OF THUMB to prevent being scammed:
- Always be wary of anyone who initiates contact with you, no matter how innocent they look or act (be especially wary in touristy areas). Use common sense and trust your intuition. For example, how common is it for a Chinese girl to boldly approach a random foreign man on the street? In general, Chinese people are reluctant to approach strangers, particularly foreigners. If they seem too comfortable, it could be because they’re practiced at it. And don’t underestimate their acting skills since they’ve been practicing every day for years. The savvier scammers are patient with the long con, slowly building your trust. Caveat: I give this warning with caution because I don’t want you to be paranoid since most people you’ll meet will just be curious to talk to a laowai (or actually interested in practicing their English).
- NEVER let them take you so some place of their choosing. In many cases, once you’re in the door, you’re cooked. Your Spidey Sense should be tingling at full alarm the second that they suggest going somewhere. To test their intentions, suggest an alternate place. If they’re insistent on taking you to a specific place, they’re almost certainly in on some scam. Don’t worry about being rude — just smile, say good-bye, and keep walking!
- In general, while in China (or elsewhere), never agree to any service unless you know the exact price. By the way, serving tea is smart for con artists because they can claim that you drank some super-super-expensive tea. Always ask for a menu with prices. In this scenario (where you were lured into a shady business), even if you were smart enough to see prices, they could simply claim that you ordered some expensive dishes or drinks. Again, your word against theirs. Another trick: your new friend tries to gain your trust by offering to split the (ridiculously expensive) restaurant bill…however, they’re in cahoots with the owner and so are just pretending to pay half in order to get you to fork over your half. Sneaky.
Counterfeit Money Scam:
THE SCAM: There are a lot of counterfeit bills in circulation…and who better to fool than clueless laowai tourist?
RULES OF THUMB:
- Carefully inspect any change, especially Y50 and Y100 bills. Does the note feel thin or slippery? Does the watermark look kosher? If it feels or looks wrong, don’t be shy about rejecting it (a common practice in China). If necessary, cancel the transaction and demand your money back.
- If you’re getting cash from an ATM or changing money at a bank (i.e. not a money-changer), you won’t have to worry about getting counterfeit bills (usually Y100 notes). But instead, you should watch out for the old Bait-and-Switch. For example, you pay with your (real) Y100 and they secretly replace it with a fake note, claiming that you gave them the bogus note. Then, they’ll give you the fake one and ask for another one. They just made a tidy Y200 profit! Always keep an eye on your bill when paying and watch for the swap. A popular scam with taxis and when getting back a deposit (such as renting bike). If someone tries to pull this on you, make a big, loud scene (to attract a curious crowd, and hopefully police).
- Also alarms should be going off if someone claims they don’t have correct change and is “willing” to round up your change by giving you a larger bill. Or they might be trying to squeeze some extra money from you by asking you to give them an extra Y50 note so they can round off your change to an even (fake) Y100.
“Black” Taxi Scams & rip-offs:
WHERE: Mostly around Beijing airports and tourist hot spots.
THE SCAM: Illegal taxis (黑车 = literally “black car”) that make a good living overcharging foreigners. “Black” doesn’t refer to the actual color of a taxi (just that they’re unlicensed and shady). Once you get in, you’re at their mercy. Sometimes, they’ll have a fake meter rigged to produce ridiculous rates. I’ve heard reports of these shady drivers just dropping people off at random destinations after collecting their payday as well as drivers who drive off with luggage as soon as the passenger gets out.
Note: in Beijing in particular, a lot of taxi drivers are relatively inexperienced and Beijing is notoriously confusing (and changing). So try to determine if they really know the destination and don’t automatically assume that they’re scamming you (they might just be lost). Also, I’ve been told that the government cracked down on these illegal taxis during the 2008 Olympics but still, there may still be some out there.
RULES OF THUMB:
- At the Beijing airport, catch a taxi by waiting in the official taxi line (avoid any touts outside or even the taxi desks inside). Always insist on using the meter.
Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid these black taxis by just looking at their license plates. All legitimate taxis in Beijing all have a plate that starts with “京 B”
RELATED TAXI TIPS:
- A related scam: You (2 or more people) agree on a fixed price. When it’s time to pay, they’ll claim that the price was “per person.”
- Watch for the (above) fake bill swap when paying. Ideally, have smaller notes with you before you get in. Reminder: tipping is not expected (but heartily accepted).
- Instead of going with any taxi driver who is parked and has approached you, try flagging down one driving by on the street, even if you need to walk a couple of blocks (especially in touristy areas like the Forbidden City).
- To avoid overcharging by normal taxis, get a general idea of how much the fare should be by asking a local (e.g. hotel staff). Have them write down your destination in Chinese, along with their price estimate to show to your driver.
- If you’ve been overcharged or scammed, write down the license plate number as well as the driver’s ID number so that you can report them. Also, take some photos of the car and driver if possible.
- Whenever possible, I prefer to keep my luggage with me in the back seat in the unlikely event that I’m getting scammed and need to toss some bills at them and storm out.
Super-cheap tour scams:
WHERE: Various places (but especially Great Wall tours in Beijing).
THE SCAM: You get lured in by some dirt cheap tour (what do I have to lose, you ask?). You find yourself herded onto some dirty bus and now you’re strapped in and out of control. What you don’t know is that they make their money on the commissions from all the various shops along the way (thinly disguised “tourist sites”). With no way to get back to Beijing, you have to endure these marathon pit stops of never-ending tourist traps (everything from “traditional Chinese medicine” to lame performances charging admission).
RULES OF THUMB:
- Don’t impulsively jump on any tour and be wary of cheap tours close to touristy sites (e.g. Forbidden City). Plan your tours ahead. A good bet is to go with one organized by your hotel or hostel since they have less incentive to pull one over on you (or recommended by guide book).
- Before signing up, ask detailed questions. Make sure that they are licensed. Check to make sure any supposed tour guide you meet has an IC card and formal reception plan from the travel agency.
Other scams & rip-offs:
Pedicab drivers (three-wheeled rickshaws) — common in touristy areas of Beijing. They love to take foreigners “on a ride”. I’m sure most are not crooks but I’ve heard too many stories of drivers who will agree on one price (e.g. Y30), then later will claim that you misunderstood and will demand higher (e.g. Y300). Or they might try to claim that it’s Y30 per person, not a total price. This seemingly nice man will then transform into a raging beast in order to intimidate you into paying. And don’t expect anyone in the gathering crowd to come to your rescue (the first rule of the Chinese: Don’t get involved). So just be wary and avoid drivers who are aggressively seeking you out, and agree to a price in writing. If you’re being ripped off, leave the agreed upon cash on in the seat and calmly walk away.
Art Student scam. This is a borderline scam that basically involves a young Chinese “artist” (or innocent looking couple) who befriends you and convinces you to look at some art that they supposedly produced. But it turns out that they’re trying to guilt you into buying cheap art at grossly inflated prices (mostly a waste of time so just walk away). Or sometimes it’s a variation of the Tea Ceremony scam where they somehow try to get you to pay an art-viewing fee or trick you into paying for insanely overpriced drinks.
Chinese traditional medicine clinic offering you a “diagnosis” and expensive (worthless) herbs. As a rule, avoid any of these clinics that are part of any tour group (they pay to get a steady supply of tourists) or recommended by someone you don’t know well (including tour guides who may be getting a cut of the action). And be wary of any that seem to cater to foreigners. Do your homework online or ask reliable locals for recommendations.
Bar tabs: Keep track of how many drinks you’ve had. Again, check prices of everything before ordering. Some Chinese bars in tourist areas have “dual menus” with higher prices in the English menu for drunk foreigners who are used to paying a lot for beers. Either avoid them and go somewhere else or chalk it up to a translation surcharge.
Fake monks: I’ve been approached on the street by “monks” asking me for a donation (mostly in Hong Kong). Some even produced some kind of “donation book,” supposedly showing money that people from different countries donated to them. Of course, I can’t be 100% sure that they’re shady scammers since I can’t prove it….but my gut tells me that they’re con artists (I’ve asked some Chinese people and they’ve agreed with me). For one, temples don’t send a random monk on a solo journey asking for donations on the street. One “monk” even approached me on Nathan Road in Kowloon (very touristy street) at midnight!
Rental bike/scooter scam: I haven’t heard this one being used in China but good to know if you’re in Southeast Asia. After holding your passport as a deposit (standard practice), they’ll have someone follow you. As soon as you park it unattended, they’ll pull out an extra key and “steal” the bike/scooter (or somehow disable it). Now they’ve got your passport hostage until you fork over a lot of money to replace/fix it. To avoid: rent from larger rental operations (like ones attached to your guesthouse). Also another reason to travel with your own lock & cable. I even travel with my old expired passport for this very purpose (even though I was 15! They never look).