While China has much to offer business and leisure travellers, we daresay there are as many scams as there are tourist attractions, and side-stepping them all can be overwhelming for newcomers.
Here are five of the most common scams that visitors fall for in cities like Beijing and Shanghai – we show you how to spot them, and better, how to avoid them completely.
The fake taxi scam
Preying mostly on tourists arriving into China for the first time with their guard down after a very long flight, you’ll find wannabe taxi drivers and their touts uttering “taxi” from the moment you set foot in the public areas of China’s major airports: especially in Beijing.
These con artists lure you into their car under the guise of it being a legitimate and fully-licenced taxi – some will even use the dedicated taxi pick-up road and can approach you while standing in the real taxi queue.
Once your luggage is securely locked in the boot, you’ll generally be asked for an up-front payment: sometimes up to ¥700 (A$149) for a journey that should really cost around ¥100 (A$20), or the driver may have a dodgy taxi meter installed that cranks up way too quickly.
You’re then stuck – sometimes the driver will take you to your hotel as planned, other times you’ll be dropped at a random location with the driver disappearing before you have a chance to retrieve your bags.
How to avoid it: Be wary of anyone offering you a taxi, and double-check the vehicle you’re about to enter. In Beijing, for example, genuine taxis tend to be painted yellow plus a mix of red, blue or green, while their licence plates always begin with ?B. (Did we say always?)
The cheap tour scam
Only $10 to visit the Great Wall from Beijing? What a bargain!
Yet for a dedicated ‘Great Wall tour’, you’ll make a lot of stops along the way and spend much more time there than at the Wall – one stop for Chinese medicine, one for overpriced souvenirs, another for tea… you’ll still get to the Wall, eventually, but can look forward to even more stops on your journey back.
The worst part is that it’s difficult to ‘escape’ this one as you can be an hour or two from your hotel, and what’s more, your tour guide is pocketing a commission from every purchase your group makes along the way as your free time is wasted.
How to avoid it: Always, always book tours through reputable agencies or via your hotel’s concierge team, and if it’s too cheap to be true, it probably is.
The tea house scam
It’s the oldest trick in the book and yet some people still fall for it – you’ll be approached in the street by somebody who looks innocent enough, and after exchanging pleasantries an invitation will be extended to a tea house.
That’s where you’ll apparently help them practice English or they’ll teach you a bit of Chinese. The scam? They’ll duck off to the bathroom and slip out the back exit, leaving you with a bill for the tea.
And it gets worse – each cup can seemingly cost hundreds of Aussie dollars, and if you try to exit you’ll likely find beefy-looking security staff in your way.
No cash? No problem… just hand over your credit card to make the payment, which will likely be billed with much more than your tea by the time you return home.
How to avoid it: If somebody ‘recommends’ a particular place, suggest an alternate. If they’re genuine they’ll seldom object, and if they insist on their original location, you’ve got yourself a scammer. An easy “no thanks” as you walk away would also do the trick.
The art gallery scam
A variant on the tea house scam, ‘art students’ in their late teens or early 20s will approach you, and using near-fluent English skills begin to build a rapport by asking you where you’re from, pretending they’ve been there and chatting about China and what you should see during your visit.
Then as your conversation continues – which naturally progresses to ask what they do for work – it’s casually mentioned that they’re an art student, and, lo and behold, happen to have their own gallery nearby.
Feel free to check it out, but don’t give in to their high-pressure sales tactics on what is likely mass-produced art at a vastly inflated price.
How to avoid it: Either decline the initial invitation or claim that you have a prior engagement and need to take off, or that you don’t like the art. Even easier than that, simply be wary of anyone who approaches you at random, and don’t be afraid to ignore them or decline their offer.
The fake money scam
There are two ways this scam works: you’ll either make a purchase and receive counterfeit notes in your change; or you’ll hand over a genuine note, it’ll be quickly substituted for a fake, and then declined by the merchant who ‘returns’ it to you.
Counterfeiting efforts are generally centred around the higher-value ¥50 and ¥100 notes rather than the smaller denominations, and it’s easy to spot a fake – real notes use raised ink on Mao’s hair and jacket which feels rigid when scratched, whereas bogus bucks will feel more flat.
Not convinced? Switch on your phone’s torch feature and shine the light from behind the note – you should be able to see a solid holographic line and a distinguishable watermark. The absence of this most likely indicates a fake.
How to avoid it: Don’t be afraid to request another if your suspected fake arrives as change, and keep a close eye on cash you spend until it’s been accepted by a merchant.
Have you been scammed in China? What did you fall for, and how can others avoid making the same mistakes? Share with our readers in the comments below...
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