22 Most Common Tourist Scams in China
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As the world’s largest country with the world’s largest population, China has a myriad of diverse, attractive world class attractions to offer. Spectacular scenery (great wall, national parks, pandas, etc), distinctive food (Beijing duck, spicy Sichuan food, etc), a unique culture (kungfu, taichi, tea, etc), the buzz of cities and the peace of the rural countryside are bound to amaze.
However, as the factory of the world, China is also home to so many fakes and scams. You have fake taxis, fake products, fake restaurants and even fake bus stops! Coupled with the Oscar worthy performances by many of these scammers, one will be hard-pressed to walk away with one’s wallet intact. Check out this article to protect yourself in this amazing land!
A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES
1. English practice/offer to help
This is one of the most common scams around Beijing (Wangfujing, Houhai Lake) and Shanghai (Nanjin Road, People’s Park). This is where a scammer, in the form of an innocent looking girl, approach lone travellers.
They will first chit chat with you to establish rapport, which is extremely easy to do. A common opener would be “where are you from”? No matter which country you say, the scammer will mention that she has a friend/family member there as well or some well-known fact of your country. There are many other variations, which could even be a simple request for you to help a photo.
Once trust has been established, the scammer will suggest going to an event or doing an activity together so that she can practise her English while you get to see local sights. Win-win! What’s not to like?
Other variations are that they might simply offer to bring you around to experience local Chinese culture or they offer to bring you somewhere for tea while waiting for an event/the scammers’ friend to come. You may go to a tea ceremony, a karoke bar, an arts gallery or even a house where they force you to play poker or some card games!
Either way you will be scammed of your money such as by drinking lousy poor tea/beer/buying art pieces at the tea ceremony/karoke bar/art gallery and forced to pay a high price for it. Try to escape, and you will find yourself some new male “friends” for company..
Some tips to protect yourself: firstly, be on your guard should you be approached by a stranger, especially someone with a good command of English. This is because most Chinese tend to keep a distance with foreigners, if they come on strong, alarm bells should ring.
Next, never let them choose to bring you to somewhere they choose. This is similar to the “would you like a drink” scam in Turkey, check the article for more tips if you would like to grab a drink with your new friend.
Finally, always check and affirm the price before consuming any goods or services.
For a detailed account such an experience, do check out this link.
2. Tourist-oriented traditional chinese medicine (TCM) clinics
Knowing that these TCM clinics are tourist oriented should set alarm bells off immediately. Their act is highly credible, with free foot massages thrown in, men white lab coats posing as doctors who are of course fake and what have you.
They first take your pulse and then diagnose your condition by guessing certain common factors that have caused you to get a certain disease. For instance, they guess you have been sleeping late nights, which is something very likely to be true for working adults.
Once trust is built, they sell you some overpriced, useless and even fake herbs or liquids and it’s extremely difficult for you to verify the authenticity or potency of these herbs.
There have many reported claims of scams by Tong Ren Tang copycats. Tong Ren Tang is a legit TCM shop with centuries of history. However, there are many copycats using that name but with a slight difference, so watch out for that.
3. Cheap, low quality tours
There are some very cheap tours but they are cheap for a reason – their main source of revenue comes from the commission shops pay when they bring tourists there. These are usually marketed by touts on the streets or simply by advertisements at bus stops.
So if you don’t want up end up everywhere else but your intended destination, do not sign up with these street touts (the great wall of China tour seems to be a popular one), do your research online or at your hotel and only look a tour with a licensed operator.
Low quality tours can also be in form of guides who do not speak English, in some cases no guides at all, run down buses/vans, etc. There are even tours where the guide comes out with some nonsensical reason which requires you to pay more to enter a certain attraction.
Some names to avoid: Beijing Capital International Travel Agency, China Dragon Travel Company, Beijing Youth Travel Great Wall tour, National Travel Service
4. Fake monks
It should be patently obvious that these monks are fake when they take out and show you a donation book detailing all the donations people from around the world has made.
This is an extremely effective manipulative tactic (also known as social proof) as people tend to mimic what other people do.
Further, it adds on an element of guilt should you choose not to donate despite seeing many others having done so.
5. Tea house scam
This is usually done through scam #1, where you get approached by a stranger who wants to practise her English with you and who subsequently brings you to a tea house.
Tours are another common avenue, as tea houses pay good money for tour agencies to bring them to their tea house. There are many teas of inferior quality which they sell for a high price, only buy if you have done your research/or at an esteemed tea house.
6. Arts gallery/school scam
Very similar to scam #1 and scam #5, however in this case art students or so they claim will approach you and invite you to check out some Chinese art at their studio. Some will claim to be dealers in rare Chinese antiques, while some will claim to be an art student and that it is the last day of their exhibition.
Once there, they will use many hard sell tactics to make you buy one of their works at an overinflated price, which they will claim to be the only one in circulation and at a cheap price.
7. Fake “officials” at Mao’s Tomb at Tiananmen Square
There are scammers who go around claiming that that you need an official passport/ID and proper shoes before you can enter, which is nonsense. Should you believe them, they will offer to sell you some documentation or shoes for you to enter the mausoleum.
8. Fake tickets
Be wary if a stranger approaches you to sell a ticket at a lower price (e.g. for the Summer Palace or some musical performance), as there is a likelihood that either the ticket is fake or that a higher price is charged for an inferior seat.
9. Fake/over priced silk/jade/jewellery/pearl
Source credit (check out the link to learn how to differentiate between real and fake jade)
This is another favourite stop of tour companies to bring you to. As the title suggests, many of these jade shops sell fake or low quality at extremely high price. What is actually impressive is the salesmanship mastered by the scammers at these jade shops.
These scammers put in Oscar worthy performances, where they act as if the shop has many years of experiences and have been patronised by big personalities. They try to make it seem as if they are on your side, by bringing you into the VIP room, giving a free gift, having a staff screw up/make a mistake in front of the guests, and the owner scolding and punishing him/her for instance, and finally offering a friendship discount! You can find screenshots of some of the Oscar worthy performances below:
Source credit (for both stories)
Stores to avoid: De Run Jewellery at Bird Nest Stadium, Jiu Jiu Fu gemstone shop
10. The place is closed
This is an extremely common scam around the world – in China’s case, were you to believe it, you will be led to a tea shop for a tea break.
11. Price gouging
At markets where there are no official price tags, stall owners will start with an outrageous price when you enquire about the price. Bargain as much as possible, sometimes even as much as 80-90% off the price, though be prepared to pay more just for being a foreigner.
1. Overcharging taxis
As with most countries, there are unlicensed/unofficial taxi drivers around the airport or touristy areas ready and primed to overcharge you. There are numerous tactics:
- Rigging a meter
- Covering a meter with a preset starting charge initially
- Installing a fake meter
- Driving off with the luggage, etc. A common tactic scammers use is to ask you to get out of the cab to help push it or close the trunk properly and the scammer will then drive off.
- Claiming a pre agreed fare was for each person rather than for the total trip
- Suddenly jacking up a price. Claiming 400 yuan when 40 yuan was originally agreed upon
- Sleight of hand swapping of bill to a counterfeit note
- Not using the meter and using an “official” looking list of prices instead
- In China, there are even fake taxis made from abandoned parts of old taxis decommissioned by taxi companies. All it costs is about 30,000 Yuan.
To save yourself from all these trouble, simply take a licensed taxi.
At airports especially, you will find many unlicensed cab drivers waiting for you once you check out. Avoid them and head out to the official line at the airport which usually has a uniform dispatcher stationed there.
If you are in Beijing, only take taxis with “B” on their license plate and always only use the meter.
Finally, avoid taking cabs at touristy areas. If you must, walk to a less touristy spot. If you want to be even more careful, take a photo of the driver’s license plate.
2. Fake bus stop/fake bus
In China, anything can be faked, from fast food restaurants, an apple store, and even an entire bank! For this scam, the idea is simple – taxi drivers create a fake bus stop by creating a signboard or simply using a sticker showing certain bus numbers.
As time passes, the number of tourists increases as there won’t actually be any bus passing by. This creates “social proof” as other tourists will believe this is the right bus stop. As the tourists get frustrated, the taxi drivers now come out in full force, claiming the bus only comes at a frequency of an hour, and so persuade tourists to share taxis which will be much cheaper and faster.
This is a common scam and has been reported by tourists heading to the Badaling Great Wall of China when transiting at the Jishuitan station.
Another variation of this scam is for fake buses to put up fake signs. Should you get up on the bus, you will either be overcharged, or sent on a shopping trip before ending up at the Great Wall of China.
There are several articles online sharing on the different routes to take to the Badaling Great Wall, check out this link for instance.
3. Three wheeled rickshaw drivers
Just like the tuk-tuks in Thailand, avoid this unless you want to be scammed, unless you are just taking a very short trip. Even then, it is recommended to avoid the risk of getting scammed.
Also, don’t be faked by their friendly demeanour! Many of them can be really friendly and charming as they are extremely experienced in dealing (scamming) with tourists. For instance, even if you have agreed a price before the trip, the driver can simply claim to have heard it wrongly initially and demand a higher fee while suddenly stopping at a secluded area during your journey. If you refuse to pay, you would be lost.
They are usually found at the touristy spots, such as the Forbidden City or the Beijing Workers’ Club, but really, they can be everywhere.
1. Counterfeit Yuan/Money or even Vietnamese Dong
There is reportedly, many fake 50 and 100 yuan notes in circulation. Learn how a real yuan note should look and feel like, and reject any that you think might be counterfeit. Avoid old or torn looking notes.
Some tips on determining if a note is real is to see if the note is smooth and crisp, and when placed under a UV light, it should not glow. Also examine the top left corner, the serial number and characters should be clear. Also, try keeping smaller notes to pay for small amounts.
Further, withdraw money only at bank ATMs, as there have been reports of fake notes at ATMs in secluded spots, and also with dishonest stall owners who give you fake notes. A sleight of hand trick is for shopkeepers to take your 100 yuan, swop it with a fake 100 yuan, pass you the 100 yuan and claim that it is fake. If you were to pay another 100, he would have earned double the price.
There are many other sleight of hand tricks, which are common in Mexico, Turkey and Thailand. To not fall for such a scam, watch the shopkeeper very carefully once you pass over the note, though do beware that he and/or his accomplice will try every means to distract you.
Another variation of this scam is when someone claims not to have enough change. So he asks that you top up and he will pass you back a 50 or 100 yuan change.
Another very creative scam to watch out for is that some shopkeepers return you mixed Vietnamese Dong with Chinese Yuan when returning you change, especially if it’s a large amount. To understand how worthless 1 Vietnamese Dong is, 1 Yuan = 3000 plus Vietnamese Dong
2. Double menus
Some shady restaurants and bars in China have two menus. One before and one after your meal where they charge you extra. This is easier to pull off in bars when you get tipsy and might not even remembered the original prices.
Another variation is having a “local” menu and a “foreigner” menu, where prices are obviously well jacked up. Look for a bilingual menu as much as you can. This is also common in other countries, such as in Morocco or Italy so do be wary!
3. Fake beggars
This is similar to an earlier scam – fake monks. These beggars (kids especially) you see on the street are part of a ring set up, such as those found in Europe (France, Spain, Italy). Some will go as far as hounding you in restaurants, asking for food if you do not give any money. These are some of the stories/tricks they use:
- Claim to have been robbed, and ask if you can spare some change for them to take transport
- Some cling onto you, and might pickpocket you if you are careless
- Ask for a donation for some cause
- Disabled beggars
- Silent beggars
Pickpocketing happens especially around the crowded tourist spots (e.g. People’s Square, East Nanjing Road, the Bund). Keep your valuables securely, and half the battle is won.
The next step is to be aware of the distraction tactics pickpockets use – check out the pickpocketing section in Spain, home to the pickpocketing capital of the world.
5. Bar scam
This is usually led on by the first scam of the article, where someone approaches and offers to bring you around. Either way, when you find yourself at a bar, and girls are offered to sit and chat with you, get out.
Their modus operandi will be to get you to buy drinks for the girls, and to get as drunk as possible, while the girls drink water-ed down alcoholic beverages. When you plan to exit, you will be hit with an extravagant bills and you will be too weak to resist or protest.
6. Card swipers at stores
Avoid paying with your credit cards at secluded stores, as there have been reported cases where the credit card machine which they provide are actually card swipers.
7. Your accommodation is closed
Similar to the “the place is closed” scam, this is commonly carried out by cab drivers or touts at public transportation hubs in Guilin and Yangshuo.
8. The massage scam
This is where a chinese lady approaches you and offers a massage. Should you accept, you will be led to a secluded apartment and asked to take off your clothes. There are many different ways this can turn out. For instance, halfway through a massage, an official looking person will come in to pretend to arrest both of you. At this point, the lady would have escaped, and with your wallet as well.
Another variation is where the pimp enters, obviously with a gang of thugs, and now demand an outrageous bill compared to the price agreed on initially.
D. GETTING HELP
1. Emergency numbers to call
- Police (Calling): 110
- Police (Text message): 12110
- First-aid Ambulance: 120
- Fire: 119
- Traffic Accidents: 122
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