China is a relatively safe country for tourists, especially compared to other countries. People are hugely friendly even if you don’t speak Chinese. A simple “nihao” with a smile is all it takes to get most Chinese to smile and respond in kind. Foreigners are treated like celebrities in China, with Chinese people wanting to take their picture or pose for a photo with them. There is still a huge curiosity about foreigners in China, especially if the Chinese person happens to come from the interior and hasn’t had much exposure to “laowai” – the Chinese word for foreigner.
However, there is a certain petty criminal element in China – particularly in big cities and areas that draw lots of tourists – that spends their entire existence scamming tourists out of money. I will share with you three scams that have become very common across China since it opened its doors to the rest of the world. Sadly, many locals know about these scams – the police included – but thousands of tourists still get taken each year. China has a thing about casting itself in a bad light to the rest of the world, and that would explain why the people with the power to do something about it, do nothing. It struck me as odd when a policeman saw two of these scammers talking to me and he intervened in fairly good English to tell me to stay away from the two who were trying to con me out of cash. I was already on to them, but my question was why were these two not sitting in jail. The cop certainly knew they were a pair of crooks. And yet, they were allowed to continue to scam unsuspecting tourists. I feel compelled to make a sidebar statement here: Dear China and Chinese friends – My aim is not to embarrass you or cast a critical eye, but rather to keep visitors from having a negative experience and hopefully leave with nothing but fond memories of China, which is an amazing country with centuries of history and full of wonder. There are already too many who have come and left with that bad experience of having been ripped off. Not a good feeling.
The Tea Scam: The most common of scams in China. A man, a woman, a couple or two women approach you on the street. They say “hello” in English, ask “how are you?”, then quickly follow-up with “where you from?” The idea is to quickly engage you in friendly conversation. Then within seconds or minutes they invite you to a tea (or coffee if you don’t drink tea) and say it’s a traditional Chinese tea house. The scammers will try to get a quick read on you and instead of inviting you to tea, they may invite you to an art gallery. If anybody invites you to go have tea within less than a minute or two of meeting you on the street, flat-out refuse.
They will insist and be super friendly and you will likely not wish to seem unfriendly or rude, but please, if you say no and they continue to follow you and insist, be rude and firmly say no. Or better yet, do what Chinese people do when they just don’t feel like being bothered by street vendors: they don’t say a word and keep walking. So how does this scam work? You get to the establishment with the scammers and they order tea or whatever. The tea is crap. The place is likely a hole in the wall. The bill comes and it’s a whopper. The scammers pay or not. It all depends on whether you are a guy and the scammers are fairly attractive Chinese women.
And the amount of the scam is determined by how gullible you seem to be and how much money you seem to have. I’ve met tourists who have been scammed for anywhere between $20 and $800. The scammers are of course working with the establishment, so whatever they pay, they’re not really paying. Tea is cheap in China. I can find a good cup of tea in Beijing for less than $2. Of course you can pay more at fancy hotels, but no way should a pot of tea ever cost more than $8. Bottom line, do not go anywhere with these people who’ve approached you. Remember, they largely operate in areas frequented by tourists.
The hotel and credit card scam: Many hotels ask you for a credit card upon arrival, “for incidentals” such as use of the minibar, even if your bill has been prepaid. I heard of this scam in other parts of the world, but I think it’s finally made it to China. How does the scam work? You give the front desk your credit card as requested, and the front desk keeps the information. You go to your room. In your room you get a phone call. The person claims to be calling from the front desk and says there’s a problem with your credit card and they need you to give them the credit card information again. The person sounds very professional. You give them your credit
card information, including those three important numbers on the back of the card. The problem is the person on the phone is not hotel staff, but a person calling from outside of the hotel. What they’ve done is call the hotel and requested to be connected to your room number. They keep trying rooms until someone answers. You’ve just given your credit card number to a person outside the hotel who then goes on an online shopping spree. If you get a call to your room asking for a credit card information, tell the person you will be right down. Do not give the information over the phone! Once you get to the front desk, if you are told everything is fine with your credit card and nobody called you from the front desk, then tell the hotel manager what happened. They need to know their hotel is being targeted.
The counterfeit currency scam: For this one, best to show you a live broadcast I did on Periscope and saved to Katch.me.