Travelling should never be about keeping your guard up at all times. You've decided to travel because you want to be free to explore and enjoy your time on the road. However, keeping at least one eye open to your surroundings can save you a lot of bother.
The vast majority of Chinese people are honest and hard-working individuals. But given the growing popularisation of the country for foreign tourists, there are bound to be some individuals (like most countries) who will prey on travellers vulnerability and naiveness. One thing to note about the people in China, is that culturally, they are very reserved in their approach to strangers and foreigners (Laowai) alike. So acting with a pinch of caution on those that go against the grain may be sometimes prudent.
Stereotypically, there are a few things that can sum up the average Mainland Chinese person..
- Chinese hold a lot of respect for family, friends and connections. The opposite is true to strangers, who they can reserve a great deal of suspicion, distrust, impatience and occasional hostility towards. This goes much the same towards foreigners, as other Chinese people.
- Rarely do Chinese people smile to strangers in public, compared to Americans who smile at all opportunities given. It's just not a common courtesy normally given to people you don't know in China.
- Opening up a conversation with a foreigner they pass on the street is rare. The Chinese generally acknowledge that westerners have little to no knowledge of Chinese social etiquettes. Which also means occasionally you will find they do strike up a conversation with you, mostly to try out their English. Whilst staying in Ningbo, a young girl sat next to me on a bus one day, and I could see she kept glancing at me and tapping at something on her phone. Then after a few minutes she showed me her phone screen, with the words ‘welcome to China' written in English. That might be the most you get sometimes! But it's still nice to hear (or at least read).
On the flip-side of this, foreigners in China are very stereotypically similar, regardless of nationality..
- We are much more open with strangers. We are conditioned with the mind-set that ignoring people is very rude, so we avoid that wherever possible.
- Having a local approach you to chat is greatly appreciated.. We are just happy to have a genuine encounter with them most of the time!
- We openly trust strangers until they give us a reason not to any more.
And this is precisely where con-artists gain their opportunities with foreigners. We are incredibly lacking when it comes to the common scams in China, to the point it probably baffles the Chinese Police how foreigners keep getting scammed. Crying about being scammed in China is not going to solve your issues either, these con-artists work on the principle of ‘foreigners are easily fooled' and will show very little emotions to what they are actually doing.
Here's the 10 worst scams you need to avoid whilst travelling or living in China…
1. Tea ceremony scams in Beijing & Shanghai
This does occur in a few other cities in China, but the amount of tourists in Beijing & Shanghai makes it the top tourist destination for them to make their money. Simply this scam involves seemingly curious, English speaking local Chinese students that start off with asking for a picture with you / or for you to take one of them. We almost got tricked into this one, but luckily Cristabel was there to save the day (she read about the scam and knew it straight away).
Given the likelihood of you speaking to any other local Chinese people in the street since being in China, you'll be excited by the prospect to have a conversation with a local. They will usually talk about what you are doing there, maybe they will tell you a bit about themselves and that they are currently studying English. Here is when you should say your goodbyes and go to wherever you were originally heading. The conversation will progress onto them talking about a local Tea Ceremony happening right now, nearby. They will then ask you if you wish to join them. This is why the tea scam is only targeted to westerners.. How often would an average Chinese tourist engage in any conversation with a stranger, let alone join them?
After agreeing to go with them, they will take you into a local tea house where you will get to sample a variety of Chinese teas over a nice conversation. What you probably don't know though, is that these new ‘friends' are simply scam artists who make a large commission from the Tea House they take you to. After your tea sampling, a bill will appear, usually totalling in the hundreds of dollars. You will be shocked at first, but then realise with your inability to argue over the bill and lack of knowledge of the real price of things in China pay it and leave.
Lessons learned too late:
If you decide at this point the whole thing was a scam, then running to the doors might end in a beating from the bouncers at the entrance. Or like other stories of this scam online, you punching one of your ‘new friends' for conning you.
Simple rule, if someone invites you to go somewhere with them in China, YOU choose the place you want to go and make sure you check prices before ordering anything.
There are some great articles out there of people busting these tea scammers from their unwitting victims and a great piece from Wade Shepard of Vagabond Journeys.
2. Counterfeit money scams (across China)
The largest Yuan bill denomination you can get in China is just ¥100, that works out to be a value of just £10 / $15. These are the notes that get counterfeited the most in China and if your currency is all coming from an ATM, then you won't need to worry about it.
However, because there are many fake notes out there, you should be vigilant of when being given back high denomination notes that they feel and look genuine.
The most common scam (although we didn't have a problem in the 6 months we lived there) is you paying for something in a shop, then the shop keeper switching it for another note in the cash register which is fake. They will make out you gave them a fake note, and demand you hand over a real one. If you comply, they've essentially made an extra ¥100 by conning you. Be wary of receiving back any notes that are rejected and watch with a close eye on what they are doing behind the till with your cash.
3. Unlicensed black cabs / fake Taxi meters
We've written previously about how to get a taxi safely in China. Taxi’s in China are generally a safe option and providing you stick solely to metered taxi drivers in the usual Green / Yellow beat down old VW’s you won’t get into too much trouble.
The scams that run in China include black cab drivers, who will sit around major transport hubs such as Airports & Train stations. They are not licensed and will rip you off. You can tell the real taxi drivers to fake ones, real ones will not approach you trying to sell their services. A typical inflated fare of black cab drivers is 4x the cost of a metered taxi. Also, be careful as they are not aware of most roads / streets and may give up and drop you somewhere in the middle of no-where and demand payment. Hey, you may even end up being robbed! So simply stay away from them, there is not a situation that the answer should be using black cab drivers, stick with trying to get a metered taxi and it will definitely work out in the end.
Holy Crap! The meters going off the charts!!
The other scam is that real taxi drivers sometimes try and not put the meter on and then charge you a random amount at the end. You will know if they have the meter on, as when they set off they need to push the meter down, so it’s not sitting vertical, the receipt machine will start printing at this point. If all these things happen, you are in a metered taxi and all is good!
There are some black cabs that have a fake meter, which has been re-programmed to clock double / triple rates. Always keep an eye on the meter during your journey, if it starts spinning out of control then just get the driver to stop, pay what you owe and find another driver.
4. Cheap tour scams – always involve extra stops to ‘souvenir shops'
When something is too good to be true, well you know the rest.. Always book your tours through reputable agents in China, otherwise you risk getting ripped off. Some agents that are reputable and trustworthy are eLong.net and cTrip.com.
Cheap tour buses are usually old, run-down and uncomfortable. On top of visiting the promised attraction, you will likely stop at several ‘tourist shops' where you can load up on overpriced souvenirs. When you are booking your tour, be clear about what is included and that there are no extra stops along the way that aren't already mentioned.
One issue we had was our day trip to Yangshuo, which we booked the first portion through a reputable tour operator. However half-way through the tour, we were told of the optional extra portion to see a local tribes village. What they mean by optional is that you HAVE to do it. Otherwise there is no way back to your hotel. If you have this happen to you, then be explicit that you don't want the optional extra and usually because of the complications that it will involve in the rest of the tour group, they will give you it at a massively reduced rate. Not the best solution, but usually the only workable one!
5. Offers of massages with beautiful girls from men on the streets
We've read about this one a lot. It's more of a scam aimed at the ‘seedier' end of things which many men have fallen into. The scam starts with a stranger approaching western men in the street, offering exotic massages with beautiful girls for ¥300. He will then lead you to the massage parlour, where you will be greeted by a young massage girl.
The service will begin with your ‘extras' thrown in at the end. After you're finished, a group of men will then enter the room and demand upwards of ¥20,000 (£2,000 / $3000) and threaten you with being reported to their friends in the police for paying a prostitute. There are some real horror stories about this, including physical violence. The simple way around all this is just don't get involved with that scene, stay safe!
6. Public bus scams at The Great Wall of China
One of the common scams operated at the Great Wall of China, as well as various other tourist attractions in China are bus scams. If you take a public bus (read our guide on public buses in China), make sure you stay on the bus until the correct stop. Sometimes seemingly helpful stewards will tell you it's your stop, where you will find yourself needing to get a taxi the rest of the way. This is a scam, if you have read that a public bus takes you all the way to an attraction, make sure to stay on until the end.
Another bus scam I have heard involves stewards pretending that the bus service is not available, and pointing you instead in the direction of minibuses / taxis.
7. Child pickpockets & beggars
Remain very vigilante when approached by beggars in China, especially when accompanied by small children. Given their heights and small hands, they have an amazing ability to pickpocket whilst you are being harassed and distracted by an elderly beggar. Legitimately hard-up people in China that resort to begging usually are very discrete and just sit on the pavement. If they approach you, there may be a significantly increased risk of being robbed. Just walk past as fast as you can and keep an eye on your valuables.
8. Chinese traditional medicine tours / clinics
Even Chinese domestic tourists have been scammed on these. Whilst we were in China, there was always a special report running on CCTV about scams people were running with Traditional Medicine. You should be extra wary of any of these clinics that seems to cater more towards foreigners and tour groups. They are a con and not run by people that are trained up in any medical profession. The usual tale is being overcharged for the tour or being coerced into buying overpriced medicines and treatments.
9. Fake Monks asking for donations
Another scam that domestic Chinese tourists & foreigners alike, fall into regularly. A monk may approach you asking for a donation, they will usually have a donations book with people's names and how much they have previously donated.. Just to seem a little more legitimate. The Chinese authorities are cracking down hard on these scams with sting operations occurring more often these days.
This scam undermines genuine monks who in some parts of China rely on the offerings and donations made by their local communities. So how do you know they are genuine?
- Real monks are not allowed to beg for money and in some cases not even handle cash.
- They are prohibited from acting indiscreetly in public places.
- The only ‘begging' real monks do is for their daily food, which is usually by donation from the local community.
If you did want to donate to a temple or monk, then do it at the temples to be sure.
10. Invitations to visit a KTV by strangers
Another seedy scam, which if you're not morally corrupt will mean you have nothing to worry about. KTVs in China are basically Karaoke establishments where you can pay for a room by the hour and have table service. If you're into Karaoke, they can be a good way to spend a few hours socialising with friends. However, some KTV places are fronts for prostitution.
If you are approached in the street or in a public place by a stranger wanting to practice their English.. They may offer you the chance of going with them to a KTV and getting a ‘massage' or something else. Again, the scam is the same as the massage parlour one, at the end of your session you will be greeted by a couple of thugs demanding an incredibly large sum of money be paid. Otherwise you will be beaten up and reported to the police for prostitution. It's easy enough not to get yourself involved in these situations, if you don't do anything illegal and ignore peoples requests to take you somewhere.
Our last words on avoiding problems with scams in China…
- It's safest not to follow anyone suggesting you join them with an activity in China. They may end up being genuine, but popular opinion and traveller experiences say otherwise. If they are genuine, they won't mind doing something with you elsewhere, and of your choosing.
- Overly friendly people who speak with ease to you and suggest something you do together should ring alarm bells. They've clearly done this before, it comes out almost like a script.
- Listen to your gut instinct, don't get involved with anything illegal or anything you feel uneasy about.
- Stay sharp, keep an eye on your valuables in crowded spaces.
- If somewhere seems overly tailored mostly towards foreigners, then usually its a tourist scam.
- Read the notice boards in your hostel for warnings on local scams aimed towards tourists, or ask reception.