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On the Road: Popular Scams in China

August 11th, 2010

Source: mathias.apitz at flickr

I am thankful to Kevin Rose and Tim Ferriss. After watching their videos on their trip to China, I became aware of a couple of the more popular scams here. Now that I am here, I can honestly say that has probably saved me a lot of money, and so it’s my duty to pass the word along to fellow travelers.

I don’t know why there are so many in person scammers here in China. I would think that the Chinese government would shut them down fairly efficiently – one of the benefits of a communist government is it doesn’t have to worry about the rights of the shady business owners, although one of the downsides is that it doesn’t have to worry about the rights of the innocent consumer either. But still, hundreds of scammers roam the popular tourist spots, trying to trick tourists out of their money.

The most popular scam, by far, that I’ve encountered is the tea house scam, or the lets go get a drink scam. It’s happened to me in both Beijing and Shanghai. As an example, yesterday I was approached by three young-looking students (two girls and a guy) on The Bund – the popular waterfront promenade. First, they wanted me to take their picture with their digital camera in front of a landmark. Then they started quizzing me about where I was from, what I was doing here, how long I’d be here, etc. They knew of Canada, talked about the Maple Leaf flag, and Maple Syrup. And on and on, for about 5 minutes of getting to know you talk. Then the proposition – they were going over to a nearby tea house, and would I like to join?

Ah, that’s the catch there. I have not fallen for this personally, but a quick search of the Internet revealed many stories of tourists who accompany the students to the tea house. There they sample several different types of tea. And when the bill comes: 2000 Yuan (or roughly $300). Since it is two girls and a guy, the guy part of their group leans over to you and says “in China, it is customary for the men to pay for the women”, and he offers to split the check 50/50 with you, leaving you with 1000 Yuan to pay for some tea and snacks.

Now maybe to some tourists $150 is money they can afford to pay for spending a couple of hours with some nice students learning some Chinese and trying some tea. I have read stories from people who enjoyed their time with them. But to most, it’s a scam. The students are employed by the tea house and paid a commission to bring you there. The money the other guy “chipped in”, he’s going to get back. And the students head out again to the tourist spot to nab more victims immediately after you leave.

I have been approached probably 8 or 9 times by these students wanting to go for some tea or just a drink. So this is a popular scam here.

Another scam, mostly in Beijing I have found, is the bicycle cart scam. Let’s say you’re walking near the Forbidden City, and it’s been a long tiring day. A guy on a bicycle-powered rickshaw comes by, and offers you a ride. You ask how much, and he says “3”. Wow, 3. That’s like 50 cents. “3?” “Yes, 3.” OK you say, and you hop in. He takes you back to your hotel, a 20 minute bicycle ride away. You’re feeling pretty generous, thinking such hard work deserves a big tip, at least pay him 10 or 20 you think.

Then you get there. “300”, he says. “300? You said 3!” Yes, 300. He shows a printed, laminated card with the prices. 300 is clearly the published price. Ah, you tricked me. Instead of 50 cents, it’s more like $50. Then he ups the price, and wants 600. He shows you how sweaty he is. How hard he worked.  He showed you a Hutong along the way like a tour guide, and the price card clearly shows that sightseeing is extra. Well the good news is, you can pay these guys a little money and then walk away. Nice try though. I have no sympathy for them.

I have heard about a foot massage scam but have not dared step into any of those places. Basically, you walk into a legitimate looking massage spa, even on a popular busy street. They tell you all the masseuses are busy, and that you should wait. They serve you tea while you wait. Then 30 minutes later they return, saying the masseuse is ready, but first you must pay for the room rental. Huh? $10 for the cup of tea, and $40 for using the room for half an hour. Two big guys with clubs suddenly appear to collect the fee. Again, you can generally argue your way out the door, basically daring them to call the police on you, which they won’t.

The bottom line is generally, if you pay them, there is very little way you are getting your money back. You can go to the police – I have read that some have tried. The police might patiently take your statement. But basically, the transaction has taken place. A service was rendered or a product was sold for a price (as high as it is), and money changed hands. They find it hard to say any crime has taken place. If you don’t pay, and they actually have to try to force you to take the money, that’s assault or robbery, and it’s much easier to get the police involved. Not that you want to get beat up, but just realize that if you voluntarily pay – out of guilt or out of fear or out of some obligation because in Western cultures we don’t ever demand a discount once a bill with a number is presented to us – then you aren’t getting that money back.

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