Common scams in China
Tourists are liable to be scammed in every country, and China is no different. Here are some of the most common scams.
Chinese people are on the whole friendly and welcoming to tourists, especially in those areas where foreigners are rarely seen; novelty and a cultural imperative to treat foreigners with respect combine well for tourists. In the bigger cities, where foreign faces are more familiar, such reactions are likely to be more muted, if they are there at all, and such enthusiastic reactions tend to be from Chinese mainland tourists from smaller cities, towns and villages.
For this reason, foreigners – especially those who are not ethnically Chinese, and so are visible foreign – are likely to encounter many excited glances and even greetings from Chinese tourists at major Chinese cultural destinations, such as Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors.
Many of these interactions, including asking to take photos with you, are completely innocent, but of course any area with a lot of tourists attracts a number of scammers, pickpockets and conmen. There’s no need to be hostile if someone marches up to you and tries to start a conversation, but do be wary. If you’re taking a photo with strangers, keep a hand on your valuables, or pass them to a friend while the photo is taken. If they invite you to go anywhere, you can be pretty certain you’re being played – most Chinese people would never do this so spontaneously.
Many scams involve an invitation to a place peddling some or other kind of “traditional” Chinese cultural experience. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because they’re Chinese, the experience will be authentic. The only thing you can guarantee that it will be is a waste of your time and – potentially – a waste of a lot of your money.
Just don’t put yourself into these situations. If you get as far as being presented with an astronomical bill for a cup of tea, or halfway through a “tour” around a fraudulent “scenic spot,” don’t think you’ll be able to argue your way out. In some cases, you’ll be faced with burly men basically intimidating you to pay up. Again, say no in the beginning and save yourself the trouble.
In these con tricks, victims – typically tourists – are typically invited to join someone for a pleasant meal or drink – only for things to get very unpleasant when a huge bill arrivies.
In most cases, this scam involves young women approaching naïve men (although they have been known to approach couples) and asking if they can practice English; the pair then go to a nearby teahouse and drink tea together for a while until the woman excuses herself to go to the toilet (in reality, to go find more victims). The management then bring a bill for an extortionate amount of money, and refuse to let the tourist leave until they have paid.
Similar to the above, though ending with a ridiculously inflated bill for a mediocre meal, and less likely to focus purely on on men.
Invitations to “art galleries”
For “gallery,” read shop. The “students” that invite tourists to see their so-called wares are not students at all, and the “master” is just some old crook with a long beard. The art is mass-produced. You won’t be forced to spend any money, just put under relentless pressure by your increasingly annoying “friends.” When they approach you to begin with, just tell them you don’t like art – hard to argue with that, right?
Bars with touts hustling for business
“Lady bars” that are just a “short drive” away…
Sometimes touts will offer to take tourists and businessmen to “lady bars”, lead them to cars and drive them way out of the city. The suckers are then stuck there until they’ve spent enough money for the touts to drive them home.
Touts for Chinese medicine “clinics”
No serious traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) center would send people out onto the streets to hustle for business. As for the doctor with the white coat on: he’s a charlatan.
Tours to “famous scenic spots”
Many of these will involve trips to places of little interest and no fame, and multiple stops at lame shops, “Chinese medicine” centers, jade factories and other “cultural” spots. While jumping on a local tour may seem like a convenient way to see the sights, it’ll really be a wate of a whole day and a lot of money. Even tours to legitimate places of interest like the Great Wall should be approached with caution, as they’ve been known to detour via tat shops and other unwanted sources of expensive junk – always ask how long the trip will last and how many stops there are. Tours organized through your hotel or hostel are usually more reliable, but not always.
Watch out for drivers who approach you inside airports and train stations offering you a ride. These are not official taxis, but “black taxi” drivers who operate with no meters. Safety is not really a concern, but price is – whatever they tell you will be vastly inflated. Just say no and look for the official taxi rank. If you decide to go with a “black cab” driver, at least make sure you have both agreed clearly on a price (and repeated it several times, or written it down and showed the driver) before you get into the car. Once you’ve started down this route, there’s little room for argument later. Make it clear that the price you’re agreeing is a total price, not a price per person. Official taxi drivers do not usually attempt to go off-meter – if they do, get out. Also, threaten to write down their driver number (usually located on an ID-style card on the passenger-side dashboard) and report them to the taxi company. This usually sets them straight.
There’s usually nothing wrong with these guys as such – they just want to make as much money from you as they can. Haggle to bring the price down as low as they’ll go, and as with black cabs, make sure the price is agreed clearly before you get in. Some have been known to “agree” to a 30 yuan ride, then – when they pull up at the location - bring out a hitherto unseen menu with a 300 yuan “tour of the hutongs” or “tour of the Bund” or similar nonsense.
Fake bill swapping
Another scam involves taxi drivers receiving a 50 or 100 yuan bill from you, telling you it’s a fake and asking for another. What you don’t notice is that they’ve switched your bill for one they were already holding, and now you really do have a fake on your hands. Just keep your eyes on what the driver is doing when they’re handling your money.
Another scam that we’ve had relayed to us on more than one occasion sees the taxi driver claiming not to have change for a 50 or 100 yuan note. When the passenger looks in their bag or wallet for smaller change, the driver then switches their real note for a fake one and ‘returns’ it.
These have also been known to happen with vendors and stall holders.
The broken vase trick
The original trick
When you go shopping, be careful when handling fragile goods; one (possibly apocryphal) scam suggests that unscrupulous antiquers will sometimes deliberately pre-damage goods then loosely ‘fix’ them – the next time a customer picks it up, it then ‘breaks’ and the antique seller can demand that they buy it. If you are not sure about whether or not you want something, do not play around with it. If the seller is very eager to let you hold it in your hands, take extra care.
The modern update
The name “the broken vase trick” is also given to a breed of scammer who claims to have been injured, intentionally or otherwise, by a stranger, then demands compensation. For more on this scam, see this article.