23 Most Common Tourist Scams in Hong Kong

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A dynamic and vibrant cosmopolis, Hong Kong has much to offer beyond the Victoria Peak and Harbour. Over here, you find a shopping paradise, international cuisine, colourful nightlife, festivals and fairs, a kaleidoscope of cultures and heritages, lush fauna and flora, a well-functioning transport infrastructure and many more!

However, as one of the world’s pre-eminent cities attracting tourists globally, these tourists also represent rich pickings for scammers operating in the country. Although violence and crime is not a big issue, it’s still important to learn how to protect yourself and not fall victim to the plethora of scams in the country.

 

A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES

1. Bait and switch

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This is a common trick globally and there are many different variations of it.

First, after confirming your purchase of a particular item, the shop attendant will go to backroom to help you pick a new set instead of the display set. However, there are some shady shop operators who will pick an older model or even a fake one instead (though the latter is unlikely)!

Besides swapping the model of the, there are some shop owners who sneakily take out accessories which are less noticeable.

Finally, there are shops which advertise popular products at very low prices. Once you are hooked and negotiations finalized, the shop owner will check his stock and suddenly claim that he doesn’t have any set left! Instead, he offers a replacement item that is much lower value but at the same price. Tired of negotiating again, some travellers simply take up the deal.

Note: this is especially common with electronics items which are of higher value, which makes the scam more lucrative. Be careful when shopping around the shops at Nathan Road, Kowloon.

Rule of thumb:

Always double check the item when it is passed back to you. Do some research online to find the reputable shops, and if something sounds too good to be true, it is.

 

2. Overcharging shops

This is a problem many tourists face when shopping for electronics at Nathan Road in Kowloon. This is because products do not have a price tag. Thus, tourists who do not know their stuff can easily fall for the claims made by these shops.

Some of the infamous shops to avoid – Perfect digital; 3D digital and audio

Rule of thumb:

Do some research online to find the reputable shops, and if something sounds too good to be true, it is.

 

3. Weighing scale scam

As part of the Hong Kong experience, many tourists like to purchase traditional Chinese medicine or herbs here. However, there have been reports of shops rigging their weighing scales to sell less for the same price.

Rule of thumb:

Besides looking at the weighing scale when there is no weight on it, do some online research to find the reputable stores to buy from. As a starting point, you wouldn’t go wrong with shops with the Quality Tourism Service Logo.

 

4. Shopping tours

There have been reports where tour groups were coerced by their tour guides to purchase a minimum amount in certain stores, else they would be kicked out of the groups.

These are usually shady tour operators in China which have advertised their tours at extremely low prices to the Chinese. So this trick is something they have to resort to, to generate revenue.

Rule of thumb:

Report the tour operator to the police as this is illegal. Also do your research before committing to any tours – choose the reputable ones.

 

 5. Fake herbal medicine scam

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On the streets, someone (usually a lady/old lady) might approach you with an offer to buy herbal medicine. They claim you can either use them or resell at a much higher price back in your home country. This is just like the gemstone scam in Thailand or tea scam in Sri Lanka.

While you are considering, the scammer’s accomplice will appear out of nowhere, claiming to have overheard your conversation. He then offers to pay double since it’s too good an offer to turn down.

Rule of thumb:

Do not succumb to greed and buy as the herbal medicine is essentially worthless.

 

6. Bad aura/spiritual blessing scam

The modus operandi of this scam is somewhat similar to the herbal medicine scam. Again, someone will approach you and tell you that you have a “bad” aura around you. He will ask if you have heard of a certain super doctor, who can cure such problems. Out of nowhere, the accomplice appears, having overheard the conversation apparently. He then enthusiastically offers to bring you to someone whom he knows can help.

You are now brought to a third accomplice, who claims to be related (some family member) to the super doctor. He diagnoses the root problem, which is that you/one of your family member has offended a soul/spirit/god. Thus misfortune would befell you.

He then offers to perform a ritual to cleanse you of your bad aura. Should you accept, you would have to surrender material valuables so as to not affect the ritual. These will be safeguarded in a bag by them.

Once the ritual is performed, they hand the bag back. But alas, what is inside are not your valuables, but a bunch of newspapers.

Rule of thumb:

Reject the offer and stay away.

 

7. Fake antiques

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The Cat Street market, also known as the antique marketplace, is one where tourists flock to for souvenirs to bring back home.

Shopkeepers will claim that these are all antiques from years gone by. Do not believe their spiel and do not get taken in by outrageous high prices which they can just make up on the spot.

Rule of thumb:

Don’t buy unless as a cheap thrill. If you must, haggle hard.

 

8. Counterfeit products

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Just like across Asia, you will find counterfeit products here (e.g. Malaysia, Vietnam, etc). Be careful while out shopping at the Mong Kok shopping district. While there are definitely bargains, there are also plenty of counterfeits around, of watches, luxury products or electronics.

Rule of thumb:

For bigger ticket items, do some online research on the reputable shops to buy from (e.g. the big chains like Broadway or Fortress). Or simply check with your hotel staff.

Also, a good starting point are shops with the Quality Tourism Services logo

 

9. Art scammers

What these scammers do is they leave art pieces as “traps” on the floor. When distracted tourists step on them accidentally, payment is demanded.

Rule of thumb:

Watch where you step.

 

10. Pickpockets

The situation isn’t as bad as in Amsterdam or Barcelona (where the pros operate), but there have still been cases reported in crowded/touristy areas. These pickpockets work in groups – one distracts while the other strikes.

For instance, at crowded places such as Causeway Bay, you might find a gang of people crowd around you. One will ask for the directions to a certain place, one will rob you and another will watch out for the police or block off bystanders’ view.

Rule of thumb:

Stay alert and aware of the multiple distraction techniques. If you want to avoid becoming a victim, it is best to keep your cash safe and secure. Only carry small amounts of cash around with you. Avoid carrying the purse or wallet in the back pocket. Also, use a spare walletmoney belt or anti-theft bag to further protect yourself from pickpockets.

Further, keep most of your valuables and passport in the hotel safe. Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead. Also, consider using hotel safety tools such as a hotel safe lock or door jammer to further strengthen the security of your hotel room.

 

11. Spiked drinks

It has been reported that there are criminal syndicates who hire pretty females to approach single male tourists in bars and nightclubs. They will chat you up and spike your drinks. Once you are knocked out, they will steal your valuables.

Rule of thumb:

Do not accept drinks from strangers, and always keep a close watch on your drink. To be even safer, order drinks in cans/bottles which are more difficult to be tampered with.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Overcharging taxi drivers

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As with all countries globally (e.g. Argentina, Australia, etc), Hong Kong is not free of overcharging taxi drivers. The most obvious ones are those who don’t use meters, or those who add on excessive surcharges.

Rule of thumb:

Take a photo of the car license plate and also of the driver’s license, and report to the police if you believe you have been overcharged.

To be even safer, you can avoid flagging down cabs at busy areas (Canton Road, Lan Kwai Fong, etc) and do so only at less busy ones.

 

2. Airport taxi touts

Do NOT take up the offers of these taxi touts at the Hong Kong airport. Touts usually target tired looking, lone travellers carrying large luggage and bluff them by claiming that there is a long queue waiting for cabs. Use their cab and they can beat that queue.

The meter would not be used and the traveller usually does not object due to fatigue. Halfway through, the driver will pressure you to pay an exorbitant fixed fare. If you refuse to, they will simply drop you on the highway or leave you at some secluded area.

Rule of thumb:

Take a photo of the car license plate and also of the driver’s license, and report to the police if you believe you have been overcharged.

 

3. Taxi money switcheroo

Again a very common scam globally (e.g. Philippines, India, etc). This is where taxi drivers swap the notes you give them and claim that you have given less. They usually do this when you are distracted. For instance, after you pass them the cash, they might suddenly move the car forward and pretend that the taxi is blocking the way. This may cause you to look behind and that is when the driver will swap the notes with smaller ones and then ask you to top up.

Another variation is where the driver swaps it with counterfeit bills. However, this occurs more commonly in other countries and not in Hong Kong.

Rule of thumb:

Always be clear how much you pass over and watch how the driver counts them. To be safe, you can repeat the notes as you pass them over.

 

C. MISC

1. Fake monks

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Fake monks are everywhere, you can even find them in the US or European countries like the UK. They might go around asking for donations, or offer to conduct a spiritual blessing for you in exchange for money. Alternatively, they could ask you to donate in exchange for some worthless items/talisman.

There’s even a facebook page detailing fake monk sightings in Hong Kong: https://www.facebook.com/FakeMonksInHongKong

Rule of thumb:

Firmly reject and walk away.

 

2. Timeshare scam

This is one of the oldest and most global scams around the world. You might find yourself approached by someone who claims to be from the Hong Kong tourist department. He will ask if you could do a survey in exchange for some scratch it cards. The Scottish girl at Harbour City’s Star Ferry Terminal is an infamous example.

The survey is of course, a front to determine if you are the kind of victims they are looking for. i.e. if you can afford their timeshare and how long you will be here for along with your accommodation details.

At the end of the survey, you will be given scratch it cards where you can win an electronics item, a cash prize or a free holiday if you were to scratch of three stars in a row. Needless to say, everyone gets three stars. However, to know what prize and to actually redeem it, you have to attend a timeshare pitch. Transport costs are covered as a sweetener to entice you to go.

Once there, you will be forced to sit through a long timeshare presentation of timeshare resorts of poor quality and at astronomical prices. After the presentation, the prize revealed will of course be a free holiday at one of these timeshare resorts. However, it is not actually free. This is because you will have to pay for your own transportation costs, and are forced to have all meals within the resorts. There might be other restrictions, but you get the memo.

Rule of thumb:

Don’t waste your time.

 

3. Can you help me take care of my cash

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Sounds like a silly scam that no one will fall for, but there are people who do.

It goes like this. A well-dressed man approaches you, claims to have found a huge stash of cash and is willing to share it with you. He shows you the stash, but as there’s an urgent task he needs to settle now, he asks if you can help him take care of the stash first before splitting. However, he would need something valuable from you as collateral since he has just met you.

Should you hand over anything, you will find that the stranger disappears and never comes back. Inspect the cash, and you will find that only the notes at the top are real, which the rest are counterfeit bills.

Rule of thumb:

If it’s too good to be true, it is.

 

4. Dropped money scam

Another variation of the “can you take care of my money scam” is that scammer one will drop a bag of cash “accidentally” in front of you. Then, scammer two will pick it up, and offer to share the money with you. He brings you to a secluded spot so that the money can be split without attracting too much attraction.

At this point however, scammer one turns up and will accuse you of stealing his money. He then demands and proceeds to search your belongings even if you resists. Once scammer one has grabbed some of your valuables, both scammers will run away. Note that this entire sequence of events happens in a flash.

This can work another way, into the aforementioned “can you help me to take care of my cash” scam. Scammer one will now accuse scammer two, not you, of stealing his cash, and both agreed to settle the case at a police station. They then ask you to help take care of the cash first. In return however, you have to give them something valuable as a collateral.

Rule of thumb:

If it’s too good to be true, it is.

 

5. Friendly helper scam

You would find these scammers everywhere around the world, especially at airports or main transport hubs.

What they do is they target tourists with large bags/luggage. They will help you carry/handle them even if you reject their offer, and then demand a big payment after. If you refuse, they will make a big scene.

Rule of thumb:

Refuse their advances by using the same trick. Make a scene such as accusing them of stealing if they try to grab your stuff and refuse to pay.

 

6. Can I borrow your mobile

This is an old trick and not as common nowadays, but still one to be wary of. As the name suggests, a scammer might claim that he has been robbed/lost his phone, and ask if he can borrow yours. Should you lend, he will run away with it.

Another variation is that the scammer will ask to borrow your phone to call someone to transfer money to him as he has been scammed. Midway through the call however, he will pass the phone to you. The scammer on the other line will claim that there is some problem with the transfer. He asks if you can pass the first scammer some money and the second scammer will transfer you the money instead. That will of course, never happen.

Rule of thumb:

Don’t lend your mobile to a random stranger in the first place.

 

7. Can I borrow your cash

Again, the scammer may claim that he has just been robbed, and ask if he can borrow some money from you and return it back later.

He will provide his contact details and to make it more believable, he may pass you a fake name card passing himself off as some reputable person.

Rule of thumb:

Whatever the situation, whenever a stranger asks for  money, walk away.

 

8. Accommodation touts

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You will find these touts at crowded tourist attractions approaching tourists and asking where they are going and where they are staying. No matter which place you say, they will claim that the hotel is currently closed for renovation and recommend another place at a cheap price.

These are usually low quality places with a lot of hidden costs beyond the cheap price advertised. Sometimes, the cheap price may even be fake and made up on the spot.

Rule of thumb:

Ignore these touts.

 

9. Begging

In Hong Kong, it is illegal to beg, however, beggars from China, as part of criminal syndicates come over to Hong Kong on a L visa to do so.

As it is difficult for authorities to prove the intent to beg for this group of perpetrators, nothing much is being done unless complaints are made.

Rule of thumb:

Do not donate unless you want to help these criminal syndicates.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

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  • Emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) 999
  • Police Hotline +852 2527 7177
  • Hong Kong Tourism Board Visitor Hotline +852 2508 1234
  • Consumer Council +852 2929 2222

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