Common Scams for the China Traveler (and how to avoid them)

Human nature is the same wherever you go, so just like everywhere else, China has it’s share of good and bad. In my travels I have never had any major issues, perhaps I’m lucky, maybe just using common sense, I’m not sure. In any case, it’s best to be on the wise side by having some background knowledge of what could happen, and what has happened to others.

Like I say, I’ve been lucky, with only a few soft touches to speak of. They include having a couple of you guys opening my back pack while walking along in the city of Humen. Pretty brave these characters as it was broad daylight on a shopping street, strolling along, I could feel the zipper going on my bag, for the first few seconds I ignored it, then twisted my neck around to see a guy about to dive into my now open back pack. He split. Apart from that, there’s been a few dodgy taxi drivers and not too much else.

Key tips from me are simple ones, keep your stuff safe and use cheap locks on your bags. Keep important items in a zipped up compartment inside the bag where it’s safe from a snatch and grab. With taxis, and in all the taxis I have been in I have only had a couple of bad experiences, always request the meter and their ID will be on a plaque on the dash, sneak a snap shot of it, even get a snap of the rego plate before you get in if you have concerns.

Like I say I have been lucky, many have not, read around the travel forums and you’ll see plenty of tales of woe, such as the quite famous Tea Scam, Medical Scam and there’s even an Art Scam.

A dear friend tells me of a Wallet Scam, where a wallet is placed on the footpath, and who’s not going to pick up a wallet and pass to someone of relative authority where it has a chance of meeting with it’s owner again. But here’s the trick, as you pick up the wallet another hand reaches for it at the same time, and you suddenly have a new friend, who proposes sharing the new found riches and quickly moving on. Which he or she does, but then you look up, and the apparent wallet owner is upon you saying ‘thanks, that’s my wallet…..but hey, wheres all my cash’. Suddenly it’s your wallet that’s getting emptied.

The Tea Scam and Art Scam are somewhat similar and mostly known to happen around Beijing and Shanghai where basically a couple of friendly local students, with some chatty conversation, lure you to a tea house then after some rounds of tea they disappear and the owner comes stomping out demanding an exorbitant rate for his liquid gold that you just drank.

As one traveler writes about their experience at TripAdvisor:

Three twenty something English speakers wanted to “chat” with me to practice their English. We did for a little while and then they told me that one of them was visiting Shanghai from the province and they were going to a typical tea ceremony, would I like to come with them? I hesitated a bit, but then thought “when in China, ….” and went with them. Posted prices were reasonable in the second story small tea place, so I was not suspicious. The visitor from the province and one of the other three bought tea, I declined. When the bill came, I was shocked – it came to 600 RMB each, instead of the 48 – 50 which I was expecting. Since I was the only Westener up on the second floor of a small shopping arcade, surrounded by locals, all involved in the scam, I paid up and we all left. As soon as we were away from the locale, the three scammers told me they were going for lunch, and disappeared into the crowd, probably seeking the next gullible tourist.

There is also a Rickshaw Scam as one traveler writes:

Just came back from Beijing last week. Would like to share my experience about this rickshaw scam that I was caught in. After visiting the Forbidden City we wanted to go to Tiannamen Square. Taxis do not want to use meter and offer 50rmb. Then 2 rickshaws came and offered 10rmb for the 3 of us. My hubby was in 1 rickshaw,me and my son shared one. Halfway another one came and ask me to go the the other one. Then suddenly they were moving into alleys where there weren’t many people. So when they came to a stop at the back alley I gave him 10rmb and they took out a laminated card that shows 300rmb and they started to demand 300RMB from each of us. After some arguement I gave them 100rmb and left.

There’s other examples too, such as one traveler writes at TripAdvisor:

I had an experience where by about 8 small children (ages 6-12 or so) approached us. They would try to say a few words of English and at the same time circle, then approaching very close. I felt very uncomfortable and guess the next step would be to pick my pockets. I reached in my pocket and took out the small change and threw it away from me and then went in the nearest store. Later I saw the same group of kids doing this again to an older couple. Just be aware.

Then there are Medical Scams where you are offered a free examination, or free foot massage such as one traveler writes (full story here):

After our tour guide took us to the great wall, she said that she can take us to a place to get free foot massages. I knew that there was no such thing as “free,” that there will be people trying to sell us things, but my friend really wanted the free foot massage. It was located next to the bird’s nest stadium. They said that they’re sanctioned by the government and that they wanted to spread their knowledge and product around so that the whole world can benefit from what they know. So we did get our free foot massages, and they were good ones too, but the whole time, they were trying to sell us their Tibetan medicine.

They had a Tibetan master come in to examine us with someone to translate it to English for us. The master was right on about my hormone problems, saying it contributes to my weight and skin problems and that I should get help as soon as possible or it’ll affect my liver and fertility. He wanted me to get 6 months of herbal pills that cost Y10,800 RMB, which is about $1660 Canadian. I said that that was a lot of money, and he said that even if it costs years of my salary, I should still get it because it’s my health at risk. When I asked how these pills work, he didn’t give a direct answer, just saying that they’re taken from plants from remote places in Tibet.

Now, I’m really tempted. I know that I’ve had my hormone problem for awhile and that it’s not curable by Western medicine. $1660 is not too much to pay. I would pay that much for my weight problem alone, never mind curing my health problems as well, but $1660 is too much to be scammed or be ripped off from.

The stories continue on the forum board, but without a doubt it’s a scam of sorts. Mostly just overpriced medicine, that may have little, if any effect. There’s plenty of good traditional doctors you can see at a hospital, and the medicine there (Chinese medicine at least) is of a fair price.

Does this happen only in China? Of course no, it’s hardly a reflection on China, more a reflection on the worst side of human nature as there are similar stories for travelers to any country.

So, what to do?

First, use the internet to your advantage and do some research on the places you are travelling to. Try the forums at Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet as a starting point.

Secondly, use some common sense, there’s no free lunches in China, if you think you have had a ‘score’ get ready for the sucker punch. If it’s free for no good reason, just pass.

Thirdly, If overtly friendly people approach you, hold suspicion, this is not really in the nature of Chinese to be so outgoing. But at the same time, don’t let this close you to the genuine people who are perhaps just are trying there English skills.

Fourthly, keep your things secure, keep your wallet in a pocket which its difficult to pick from.

Lastly, always keep details, such as taxi receipts, photos or any kind of proof that will help the police assist if it ends up in their hands. If the amount is small, take the hit, take the lesson, share the lesson and go on.