Tourist Scams in China
Though violent crime in Chinese cities is still relatively rare, scammers buzzing like bees at top tourist sites can truly make a meal out of some of these places. While they are pesky and persistent, for the most part they are nothing to fret about, just be aware and avoid them. This section describes the scams you will certainly encounter at some point during your China excursion and how to avoid them.
You will most likely take a taxi at some point during your visit, but just make sure you take a licensed one and not a black taxi.
The scam: Black taxis (hēichē; 黑车) are unregistered illegal taxis that will overcharge unaccustomed tourists, take detours, and/or jack up the agreed price at the end of the trip.
How to avoid it: Only take metered taxis and don’t get into a stranger’s car when they offer you a ride. The first thing to be aware of when grabbing a cab is the placard on the top of the car. These are government sanctioned (official) taxis, and you should only hail them down – no placard, no go. Taxi drivers are required by law to use their meter, so say dǎbiǎo (打表) to tell them to turn it on. Some official taxi drivers may have a story about their meter being broken or some other hoodwinking reason for why theirs is a set price. If this happens, forget that taxi; get out and get a new one.
International airports are crawling with these illegal private operations. Fervently deny them, and get in the official taxi lines. Don’t let a long taxi line daunt you, they are fast moving.
Rickshaws can be a fun and refreshing way to see an area, especially in the summer. But keep in mind that rickshaws are for tourists, and those waiting outside hotels and touristy areas can be sketchy.
The scam: The shadier drivers will lurk outside the heavy tourist areas, but they can be found elsewhere in the city. Rickshaws have no meters, so the price is agreed on (but not paid) ahead of time, and certain fraudulent drivers often call on the language barrier or some other excuse when they raise the price or add a zero at the end of the ride. Some have been said to switch drivers mid-journey and then ask for a payment for each driver. There are also reports of drivers taking passengers to small alleys and demanding large payments, which is essentially robbery.
How to avoid it: Be exceptionally clear about every aspect of the deal before getting in the car. If you want the rickshaw experience you should carry a pen and a piece of paper and make them write the agreed-on price before you set off. Make sure the currency is clearly written down as well; there is a big difference between ¥30 and $30. Low-ball price quotes (under ¥10) are often scams also: a quote of ¥3 can turn into ¥300. Remember, you’ll never get anywhere for less than ¥10. You must also be very clear of stipulations such as duration and the number of people. Some drivers have been known to agree to a price, say ¥70, only to stop halfway to the destination and inform the passengers that the price was per person for half an hour. If you feel something is afoot, or the driver is taking you somewhere you don’t want to go, stand your ground, and feel free to show some anger.
Easy to avoid if you have a heads up, a new scam hitting the market is the drive-off.
The scam: China Daily covered two police reports where taxi drivers asked passengers to exit and help push the car (claimed to have a dead battery) or help close the trunk. With the passengers removed from the car the drivers quickly hit the gas, in one instance making off with ¥17,000 ($2,700) and a laptop.
How to avoid it: Never exit a cab with your articles still inside. The obvious response to any driver who requests your assistance (before you have reached your destination and have all your belongings) is to give a firm “No!” Do not exit a vehicle without all your personal items, and do not be afraid to refuse an insistent driver; eventually they will want to get on with life and will drop the issue. If you arrive at your destination and have removed all your possessions from the car, feel free to lend a hand to a friendly driver.
Many international youth hostels and large hotels are now warning of the Tea House scammers. Though the original scam started in Beijing, it apparently became so effective that scammers across the Middle Kingdom picked up on it and started using it in other places, small villages and metropolises alike.
The scam: Nearly always encountered as well spoken locals, these friendly and charming crooks invite naïve and unaccustomed travelers to teahouses with no labeled price on the menus and foot the unfortunate tourist with the bill (often exceeding US$100). Though the teahouse is the most prominent type of this scam, drinks, meals and coffees might also be offered. These scammers often prey on men by using pretty girls as their representatives.
How to avoid it: Be suspicious of any stranger on the street offering to take you somewhere. Obvious tourists (with an open map, camera and foreign face) are major bait for these scammers, so be on high alert at tourist spots. The key word here is stranger. The friendly Chinese person you meet having breakfast at your hostel who wants to share a day out with a new friend is one thing; the individual who approaches you on the street and invites you to go somewhere is totally different, especially if they insist on choosing the venue. Do not agree to go anywhere with strangers if it doesn’t feel right.
I was down around Tian’anmen Square the other day, on a trip to Beijing from Europe, and this great looking woman struck up a conversation with me. I’m usually a very savvy traveler, but this woman was so good looking and so charming that I took the bait hard and accompanied her to a teahouse for, as she put it, just some “conversation and drinks.” The conversation was friendly, and time seemed to fly by.
Before I knew it, she was ordering snacks, fruit and some whiskey (low quality whiskey by the taste, I had to keep putting coke in it). I didn’t imagine fruit and nuts could be particularly pricey, but I joked with her anyway that I might be in trouble when the bill came, informing her (truthfully) that I only had ¥200 on me. She assured me everything would be fine, so we indulged.
The conversation began to turn to “hot fun” back at my hotel, which was exciting for a single guy, but her next suggestion of another friend suddenly made me realize I might be in some trouble. I decided it was time to pay up and move on and asked for the bill. They murmured some prices, such as the fruit plate for ¥130, but when I asked for a written bill they weren’t so excited. Finally, I was given a written total... ¥6,300! My mind was blown! Trying to escape, I reminded her that I needed to go back to my hotel to get more cash, but she said she would accompany me (there was also a very large Chinese man who was apparently going to accompany us as well).
It was my lucky stars that one of those electric golf-cart police cars approached, so I flagged it down. The girl had a short discussion with the cops (who spoke no English but seemed to realize what was going on), so they demanded I get in the car and they drove me several blocks away. The woman was cursing and saying she would find me as we left. Later, the policemen stopped the car when we had gone a safe distance and gave me one word: “Out.”
I hopped out, shaken but none the poorer and much the wiser. I’m endlessly thankful, because I know that it could have been worse, a lot worse.
Very similar in nature to the Teahouse scams, and most common in Shanghai and Beijing, pesky “art students” patrol the big tourist spots striking up friendly conversations with strolling tourists.
The scam: How many of them are actually art students remains uncertain, but what ensues is a trip to an overpriced art gallery where a high pressure buying situation can sour your mood quickly. Certain foreigners may enjoy the friendly chitchat, but keep in mind that if they feel they have hooked you, it will not be easy to get rid of them.
How to avoid it: Identify the situation and just say “no.” Avoiding this one is almost exactly the same as the teahouse scam. Strangers approaching you are big red flags. Our advice is to give them a friendly brush-off.
My first time in Beijing, I stayed near the Wangfujing area, a heavily trafficked and massively touristy area. I was young, fresh-faced and ready for my first China adventure. With such a positive outlook and totally unaccustomed to Chinese culture, I was easy prey for the “art students,” who begin their scams with charming pleasantries. As I walked down Wangfujing Street, ready to make my way to the Forbidden City, I was surprised to hear a friendly “Hello! Where are you from?” Two young, seemingly friendly and average Chinese (a guy and a girl) were strolling alongside me and had a look of unbridled interest in their eyes. We exchanged names and shot back-stories, and they even wrote my name for me in Chinese to put a little icing on the cake, so to speak.
As it turned out, they were art students, and they had a fantastic exhibit just around the corner they wanted me to see. It seemed I had made a genuine connection with a local, and being so pumped on my first Chinese experience, I heartily agreed. The gallery was little more than a dim, gutted apartment room with several walls of painted Chinese scrolls depicting animals, rivers, flowers and plants; quintessential Chinese scenes of nature. There was no denying their beauty, and I was fairly enchanted.
“So, which ones [notice the plural] do you want to buy?” they soon asked. I did like several of the larger ones, so I picked out two and asked the price, which was ¥300 for each one. Yikes! It was turning out to be an expensive outing. I had little idea about what was a reasonable price, and by Canadian standards 50 bucks for each seemed reasonable to me. But this was not enough for them. With puppy dog eyes they informed me that I had only selected his paintings (which were obviously not painted by either of them) and none of hers. Knowing that I had a girlfriend, they suggested a smaller one depicting two plants that traditionally signified love. It was a “mere” ¥150. I was starting to feel suckered, but I had already picked some out, so I reluctantly agreed. I didn’t have enough money in hand, so the boy friendlily accompanied me to the ATM outside (obviously just keeping an eye on me), and I got my cash and made my purchase. They made sure to drive the scam home by exchanging emails with me as I left. Jerks.
I do really like the paintings I bought. They are beautiful and I still have them displayed. But not only are they not very genuine, the experience itself was as fake as it gets. I have since realized that those scrolls should actually cost about ¥10 to ¥30 each, and though they are nice, it’s the rip-off and the feeling of being a total chump that sours the paintings.
Theft on the surface may not seem like a scam, but those pickpockets who work in teams are akin to con artists.
The scam: In public areas it is not uncommon for partnered rogues to play the bump and cut combination. That is, one may distract you (ask a question, bump into you, photo op, etc) while another slits your bag or pocket with a razor and nimbly extracts your valuables.
How to avoid it: Keep your valuables on you or within your field of vision. Keep your cash in a money belt under your shirt, or close to your body right where you can see them. Items that may not fit so close to your body should be kept inside a snug interior pocket of your bag. When riding public transportation, it is advisable to put your bag infront of your body.
This one is not exactly a scam, and definitely not unique to China, but still very pertinent.
The scam: Some tourists have become the unfortunate victims of the drive-by bag-snag, where a running thief snatches an unattended bag at full sprint. Because the thief hits at full speed, the dazed victims are unprepared, and by the time it dawns on them what has happened, the quick bandit is long gone.
How to avoid it: Keep your bags away from the open. When dining or relaxing in public areas, always keep your bags close and away from the road; the backs of chairs or places adjacent to trafficked areas are especially vulnerable. Good spots to place your bag include the seats of chairs that are between you and the interior (i.e. the wall, window, or inside of your table) of your dining environment or on the floor between your legs.
Many massage parlors in China double as brothels, or at least have a seedy side.
The scam: Unsuspecting patrons have found their relaxing massages take a sudden and unwelcomed erotic turn, and the embarrassed victims shell out for the extortionate bill in lieu of causing a scene.
How to avoid it: A good general rule to follow is to avoid massage parlors with tasteless red neon signs or those that staff only women. Your best bet is to check with your hostel or hotel for recommendations; they can usually suggest something reputable.
My wife and I had just finished a long 24-hour train ride and finally arrived in Wuhan. After checking into our hotel, I decided to go for a walk while my wife decided to take a nap. After exploring a few blocks, my sleepiness began to kick in, and I quickly realized that my wife had the right idea about sleeping it off instead of trying to pound through it (she’s always right). Nevertheless, upon circling the block on my way back to the hotel, I spotted a small massage clinic right on the side of the street. Figuring I could kill two birds with one stone by resting and getting the kinks out of my joints from that long train journey, I decided a traditional Chinese massage was just what the doctor ordered.
I walked in and the lady handed me a menu of different massages listed in English and Chinese. I couldn’t understand some of the Chinglish translation (I remember one’s title was Pearl Relax Bodiness Message), so I picked a mid-priced one for 60 minutes.
To make a long and embarrassing story short, after the 60 minutes were up, the young masseuse began getting a little too close for comfort during the leg massage. When she finally crossed the line, I got up and swatted her hands away from me. She looked puzzled, almost as if I were the crazy one, and then stormed out. I put my shoes back on and went to the front desk to pay the fee. I’m guessing that this particular place wasn’t a scam because they didn’t try to make me pay any extra for any of the funny business, or maybe it was just because I rejected the “happy ending.”
Anyway, no matter how you cut it, it was probably my fault for stepping in to the wrong kind of establishment. Next time, I’ll definitely make sure to consult with my hotel to find a reputable establishment.
One of the less common scams but one of the more difficult ones to spot, counterfeit cash in China is limited to ¥50 and ¥100 bank notes, and they are dealt out by dishonest taxi drivers and small shops. There are two ways you may be given a fake bill.
The scam (1): The scam is played out when you pay for your goods or transport with a ¥100 (or less often with a ¥50) note and the driver or shopkeeper “inspects” it, often outside your field of vision. They then inform you that the bill is fake, return it to you, and ask for another one. This may happen several times in a row, and when you check your bills later you will realize that the bills they returned to you were switched out for fakes by their crafty hands. It is a sleight of hand parlor trick.
The scam (2): Sometimes the attempt to pass you a bogus bill occurs when the driver or shopkeeper claims they have no change. For example, if your cab fare was ¥60 and you pay with ¥100, they will sometimes try to give you a ¥50, using the “no change” excuse, and even saying they’ll give you a slight discount. What they are actually doing is passing you a fake note. If they truly don’t have change they will go to another shop and exchange for it.
How to avoid it: To beat this scam, first keep one thing in mind: banks are masters at screening for fake bills, which means that whether you exchanged for Chinese RMB at a bank back home or grabbed some from a Chinese ATM, you can be 100% sure that your bank-issued 100s are not fake. When paying a suspicious taxi driver or shop owner with a large bill, watch their hands very carefully, and feel free to make a fuss if they try to examine the note out of sight, even if it’s just behind the counter. The extra cautious will check the serial number on the bank note and write it down in view of the recipient to discourage any funny business. If they manage to pull one over on you, and you are close enough to your hotel, grab one of the staff to come out and get the driver’s information.
Beggars are not as bad in bigger cities as in some second or third-tier cities, but you will likely encounter some, especially on the fringes of tourist areas.
The scam: If you give money to some of these people, they may hound you for more, or you may be subject to a train of beggars who quickly caught word of the generous foreigner. There are also children who sadly beg for money, but they are almost 100% of the time kidnapped and forced by a crime syndicate, so all the “revenue” goes straight to the unscrupulous bosses.
How to avoid it: Ignore them, plain and simple, if you do not want to give them any money. Do not give money to child beggars; it only promotes their tragic situation, and the money you would give them will not stay in their hands. If you really feel the urge to help, give them some food to eat, then you’ll know that what you gave truly went to them. Be warned, however: if you do this you may be subject to a spree of children who heard of your generosity.
Note: Sometimes you will see those with shocking disfigurements, or those affected by terrible accidents (such as people who have obviously been severely burned or lost limbs). It can be heart wrenching (so be prepared), and many of these people actually cannot work to pay for large medical bills. They are far less likely to hound you, because their need is usually genuine. If you feel the urge to give, these people can be far more legitimate (and gracious) recipients.
This one is not terribly common, but it is one that can really ruin what began as a fun-filled jovial night.
The scam: Usually happening to lone travelers, the scam usually begins when you meet a friendly Chinese man (who often gussies up the role to look like a businessman) while out to dinner. He invites you to eat with him and his very pretty lady friends. He’s so friendly in fact that he pays for the whole meal, yours included, and invites you to come sing some songs at the local karaoke joint. Before you know it, the alcohol is flowing, dishes of fruit and snacks are being brought out, and you end up with an outrageous bill – often in the thousands of dollars – that you never imagined you’d suddenly be muscled into paying.
How to avoid it: Don’t run off with strangers you meet. Your mother told you this one, didn’t she? There are endless friendly and honest Chinese who would like to be your friend, but it’s very unlikely that these are the kind of people who invite random strangers out for a night of drinking and karaoke on their tab.
Bar Tab Scam
Having some kicks out at the bars for many is an integral part of the traveling experience. Just remember that alcohol impairs your judgment and memory, and there are some places who may try to take advantage of you in your inebriated state.
The scam: You’re having a good time drinking with friends, and the time is flying by and the beers are going down. The servers have a tab running for you, but you’re having too much fun to keep track. When it’s all said and done, your tab is much higher than it should be.
How to avoid: Pay for every drink as you order. Easy enough, right? It really is. You buy a beer, you pay for it. Get a round of shots, pay before the server leaves the table. By consistently paying each round there is no way they can throw on extras at the end, and you can easily stand your ground if they try to say otherwise.
China has a problem with fake alcohol – be aware of it and try to avoid it.
The scam: A bar will use rubbing alcohol or some other potentially dangerous “substitute” (like ethylene glycol) to refill their alcohol containers, or the distributor will do it and sell to bars looking to cut costs (fake alcohol is cheaper than the real stuff).
How to avoid it: This scam isn’t so common that you need to be paranoid about having some drinks, and there isn’t any foolproof way to avoid it. The best thing you can do is stick to alcohol brands you know well (i.e. know their taste and feel) and stop drinking anything that seems, tastes or feels amiss. Oftentimes you will notice that a drink, or especially a shot, just doesn’t taste right. These are signs to pack up and find a new place to drink.
Note: Fake alcohol is serious business. People have become severely ill, blind and even died from drinking these toxic cocktails. Chances are you’ll be fine, especially if you stick to places we have recommended in this guidebook, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
There are two scams that you should watch out for in restaurants. They are not terribly common, but they do happen to tourists, so be aware of them.
The scam (1): Many restaurants will keep separate English and Chinese menus. When a foreigner comes in, the owner will immediately provide them with an English menu. While the prices may be equivalent to those in the West, in China they are steep and actually much higher than those on the Chinese menu.
How to avoid it: This one may be a bit harder to avoid than others, but fortunately it’s less common. The big warning signal to look out for is if you are immediately greeted with an English menu. If this happens, request a Chinese menu. If they refuse, you can be pretty sure they are up to something; choose a different place to eat.
The scam (2): One that happens to domestic tourists and foreigners alike, a restaurant will have two menus that look identical except one has significantly inflated prices. They first give you the menu with reasonable prices to order from, then when the bill comes at the end of the meal, the price is higher than it should be. When you protest, they bring out the menu with inflated prices and make you out to be the fool.
How to avoid it: Beating this one is simple. Use a smart-phone or camera to take pictures of the items on the menu and their prices. If they try to show you a different menu at the end, simply pull out your picture and you’ve got them red-handed.