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One born every minute : Chinese Scams in Beijing

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Since returning to Beijing from the relaxed and friendlier surroundings of Yinchuan I seem to have been the target of any number of Chinese scams. Most I noticed; a few I probably missed.

At the airport, a taxi tout singled me out in the middle of the queue and offered to take me into town for a special rate. I asked why he didn’t offer this to all the Chinese people in front of me, to which he replied that he was the ‘official English speaking driver’. I passed on this exciting privilege, but this brief exchange, during which neither the queue nor I had moved, was long enough for those behind to start trying to push past, which annoyed me more.

Beijing Taxi

An official Beijing taxi - these are yellow and red/green/blue depending on the company

A real taxi didn’t take the scenic route and got there for a reasonable 94rmb. She seemed reluctant to give me any change from a 100 (there’s no tipping in China), and on asking for a taxi receipt she casually handed over one valued at 12rmb. On pointing this out, she printed one out from the machine marked at 180rmb.

Beijing Taxi License

Beijing Taxi License

On a previous occasion a taxi driver back from Wangfujing to Chaoyang offered a ‘reduced’ fixed price of 200rmb on a 60rmb trip, so had to be berated to use the taxi meter. When we arrived he clumsily tried to switch my money and suggested that the 100rmb crumpled note he was now holding was a fake. Having just got the original brand new 100rmb note from an ATM, I picked his license off the dashboard (he’d lost a lot of hair) and pointed towards a convenient policeman standing near my house. This made him rather shouty, but we settled on 60, paid for with the original note he’d slipped in his shirt pocket.

A friend did fall prey to the teahouse scam – two attractive young ladies led him away to a very nice teahouse, where they poured the tea without showing him the menu or prices. The tea was pleasant and they chatted for three hours, during which he learnt a potted history of China and Beijing, got a few language pointers and flirted with his new friends.

Bargaining the price down from 2000 to 600rmb he’s still convinced this was better value than his usual language lessons, and thinks he has a chance with one of the girls if they ever meet again…

The next day I went book shopping in Wangfujing. A friendly young couple approached who wanted to practice their English. After the usual pleasantries, they suggested going for some tea. This is a common scam so I suggested McDonalds, but of course they knew a quiet little teahouse just round the corner. Moving on up the street I was approached twice more, first by a very attractive lady and then by two really quite funny young girls, all with the same offer.

Another time on Wangfujing1 I got stopped for the art student scam. After checking where I was from he explained in detail how he’d previously had an exhibition in Birmingham, England; how I was so lucky to be British and how he was going to emigrate there one day. He then offered to show me round a gallery of works by him and his impoverished student friends, who can apparently afford a gallery on Beijing’s premier shopping street.

With some effort I declined, but not everyone gets away: Here’s the story of Kevin Rose (the founder of Digg.com) with Tim Ferris (the author of ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ and ‘The 4-Hour Body’) realising he’s been scammed:

Other common Chinese scams I’ve not encountered are the super cheap tours with visits to fake attractions. Fraudsters have actually gone to the effort of building a fake Great Wall, lined with fake Chinese traditional medicine clinics and massively overpriced jade shops. Many bars in popular areas will have an inflated bar tab, where a specially priced English menu appears for drunken foreigners.

I think the sad part of all this is that whilst in Beijing and Shanghai I occasionally brush off people who might be genuinely friendly. In more rural areas I’m much more willing to have a conversation with a random stranger.

The one thing I don’t understand is what do the people who approach me in the street get out of doing this as a job? Their language skills are outstanding, they’re presentable and charismatic, and generally demonstrate the ability to think on their feet and lie convincingly. It seems like they could do well if they chose to take a more traditional career and surely earn far more?

 

1 I can see there’s a theme here with me repeatedly visiting the location of these scams, but the big brand stores in Wangfujing are the only places I’ve found in Beijing that stock decent clothes large enough to fit a tall foreigner. Later note: The Russian markets stock similar sizes, much cheaper

Photos from Flickr, by gab and mikechu

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Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.

39 comments

    • I does depend on behaviour. They do leave me alone when I’m heading somewhere with a purpose, but on this occasion I was asking for it by pottering around slowly on a Monday afternoon, whilst wearing a rucksack and looking all around for shops.

      Reply
  • Taxi drivers are terrible sometimes. Got an extra 2 quai from us now and they still don’t want to use the meter. And don’t forget that half the time, you cant use their seatbelts because their pride comes before your safety.

    As for the WFJ scammers, we should create a google map or something of all the tea houses they take us to warn others. I got scammed when i first came to China a few years ago. I still remember exactly where I was taken on Wangfujing.

    Might be good, especially for travelers.

    Reply
    • You’re right – I don’t think I’ve seen seatbelts in a taxi since I arrived in Beijing. Is it law to wear one in the back of a car here?

      If you make it, I’ll link to it.

      Reply
  • I’m guessing these scamsters are able to make far more plying this trade than they would earn in a respectable job.

    We don’t know their conversion rate, but let’s say they bring in ¥1000 of tea business a day and get 50% of that. That’s ¥15000 a month; far more than they would make anywhere else.

    Reply
    • 15000 is good for China, but I’ve met 3 or 4 people grifting the richer shopping streets who appear (or act…) far more adept at both English and business skills than some Chinese friends working for Western companies in China. They chose the career route and after being sponsored through Business school are taking home more than that per day.

      Reply
      • Perhaps the people speaking English on the streets didn’t pass the gaokao, which tends to kill off many opportunities.

        Reply
    • Hi! It’s nowhere near as bad here as say, India or Malaysia. Just about the only taxis I trust are London’s Black Cabs – they really know their way around, but charge accordingly!

      Reply
  • I was never scammed in Beijing (at least I don’t think I was). Was in on in Shanghai with the tea house scam…I passed. I came across a lot of illegal taxis and always gave them a miss. I think I was probably ripped off on my trip down the Yangtze River, but I enjoyed the trip, so tried not to think about it too much 🙂 The Chinese do tend to take scamming to a whole new level.

    Reply
    • I read something recently that the Chinese do feel that outsiders are a bit slow on the uptake, and that we’re simply too trusting in human nature.
      It’s part of the national psyche to try and be one-up on other people, so it’s all just a big game to them really.

      Reply
  • Another great post!

    I managed to do well with avoiding the scams while I was in China, but I did get taken once or twice. My friends and I were trying to get to a party in the 798 Art District but it was late and we couldn’t get a taxi. How fortunate for us that a “hei che” showed up almost on cue.

    He got us to 798 for a very reasonable fare, considering the distance (50 RMB), but where he nailed me was the fake 50 RMB note he gave me in exchange for my 100 RMB note. I chalk this one up to the darkness and lack of experience checking my bills for fakes.

    Also, regarding the 100 RMB bill you got from an ATM: I once got a counterfeit 100 RMB bill from an ATM. I still have both that bill and the fake 50 to remind me about why I love (and dislike) China. You gotta take the good with the bad!

    Thanks for the post!

    Mike

    Reply
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  • Also, watch out for the new train ticket scam.

    A young, decently dressed young chinese couple (with no luggage) will approach you near a busy transport hub like Dongzhimen or Xizhimen trying to explain in broken English that they have come to Beijing looking for work but have spent all their money and now can’t get home (usually a small village outside a larger city in the south, like Nanjin). They are really hungry, they say, and and all they need is a train ticket back.

    After buying food for them (which they will eat in front of you) you go to the ticket office to purchase a ticket and lo and behold, it’s just closed! Since they refuse your offer for a place to stay, and they don’t want to inconvenience you to come back in the morning, they suggest you can just give them the money outright and they purchase the ticket tomorrow. And a little extra for the bus back to their home village, if you don’t mind.

    The first time I encountered this I was pretty sure there was a good chance I was getting scammed, but decided to go ahead with it on the off-chance they really did need the help. However, I started to hear the same story repeated over and over from friends who had encountered the same thing, and even randomly bumped into a friend on the street right in the middle of being scammed. I started to repeat the story in detail to the couple that they had probably just told to my friend, and they immediately turned around and walked away without even a reply. I even had one friend show up the next morning just in case they were actually needing the tickets. Of course, the couple did not show up.

    Tip-offs that something is a scam:
    1) Despite thousands of Chinese speakers milling around, they try to approach you, a foreigner, in a language they can barely speak to ask for help.
    2) They say they have been in Beijing for several days but are surprisingly well-dressed and groomed
    3) They say they are traveling but have no luggage.
    4) They ask for something which you are unable to buy them, so instead ask for money. (NEVER give money! It likely won’t even go back to them but to whoever their “handler” is. Same with many beggars).

    Reply
    • Excellent advice, thank you.

      In London it was common to see crying teenage girls asking men (always men) for the price of a ticket home. It became so common people got wise and simply ignored them, which is sad as on occasion it’s possible they really were in need.

      Reply
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  • hmm… I think the taxis are more honest in Shanghai.
    Another tip: avoid conversation or anyone approaches you in a very touristy place, because most of the scams are there. I had an English friend fell into that tea scam and called me for help. I told him to run away and go to crowded places. So he pretended he was going to ATM and ran away. It was quite funny in the end 😀
    It reminds me of Napoli. Rick Steves said assume any con artist outsmart you. If you want to ask something, go to those big stores and policemen.

    Reply
  • I once took a train to Suzhou and as soon as I got into the train station some men came up to me and told me they were taxi drivers. I wasn’t sure if it was a scam or not, but I ended up walking with one of them to where he said the taxi was (he was very persistent). It turned out that the “taxi” was his own, personal car that he had parked in the parking lot. There was no light, meter, or license displayed anywhere, so I didn’t get in the car. Also, I asked him how much it would cost to go to Tiger Hill and he said 80rmb, but later when I found real, licensed taxi the cost was only 14rmb.

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  • In the video, he says at one point that scammers will not approach someone who has facial hair. was this is a joke or is it true? if it’s true, what is the reason?

    Reply
  • These scams are not limited to China, these crooks read from the same playbook all around the world. I’ve heard of someone falling for the above mentioned “teahouse” scam in Lima, Peru, where I was also approached in a similar fashion- I declined. If the person genuinely wants to practice their English, they will gladly go someplace you suggest, such as McDonald”s or Starbucks. Two pretty young things tried it on me in Beijing in a mall, they left when I wouldn’t go with them. To Alexy, above, I have a full beard; that doesn’t deter the scammers. Taxis I use rarely and with a chip on my shoulder; it is less aggravation to learn the public transit system or simply walk than to deal with those pirates. And trying to get something out of you by saying that they are simply trying to get home is something I’ve been hearing for years- the last time a few days ago here in Canada, from a healthy young guy who could have hitchhiked to that town in a few hours, instead of staking out the sidewalk in front of a popular pub. My favorite is the guy I have encountered twice in New Dehli on separate trips. He rushes up to you sobbing and carrying a young child over his shoulder, seemingly passed out. He thrusts a medical looking prescription form in your face with a large sum on the bottom; evidently the child is terribly sick and the man can not afford the medicine needed. Funny how that kid is repeatedly at death,s door when a foreign tourist appears.

    Reply
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  • Most taxi Drivers here appear to be honest enough ( not like in the Philippines). I agree with you about the English speaking scammers. They all appear to be really well educated, and capable of having better and more honest Jobs. I have to admit that on my first visit to China I fell prey to the language scam. Now when approached I suggest a coffee in McDonalds. Lone male tourists seem to be the main targets of These cheaters.

    Reply

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