Five common travel scams in China, and how to avoid them

By Chris C., November 2 2015
Five common travel scams in China, and how to avoid them

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.

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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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

15 Dec 2014

Total posts 284

Good Article!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

22 Apr 2013

Total posts 145

And this is all ON TOP of the cheeky drinking games when doing business in China! ;)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 May 2014

Total posts 15

Hi Chris,

A great article. Am off to China in 2 weeks and the tips are most appreciated!

07 Mar 2013

Total posts 18

I fell for the tea scam in Shanghai, whilst there with 2 friends. We were approached near the Art Gallery we were planning on visiting. A couple of girls told us it had closed for the day, we were there late and assumed it might have so took up their offer for the Tea Festival! It didn't set us back hundreds of dollars, it was quiet reasonable I though. The girls drank the tea with us and escorted me to the ATM whilst I go the cash out for payment for everyone! Still probably one of the best experiences I have had in Asia though, the tea and the variety was superb and tasted so good. I recommend everyone do a tea show, probably seek it out on your own though for a better price. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

19 Feb 2014

Total posts 445

I've been to China and south east Asia and have been put off from visiting again if I can help it.  Sometimes you just cant help but get funnelled into a trap.

Had a few border crossings, Vietnam to Cambodia etc...We found that it is difficult to spread the wealth and in fact you money gets funnelled into one company.  On a particular occasion we paid for a day trip to cross a border and we were asked if we wanted a slow boat or fast boat across the Mekong Delta Vietnam/Cambodia, with the fast boat being far more expensive of course.  Everyone opted for the fast boat, whereas the 5 of us opted for the slow and kept being pestered if we wanted the fast boat for extra $$$ and smelt a rat.  There was never a slow boat.

The other end, they delibrately drive slowly to the destination so you arrive at midnight, and behold they drop you outside one of their hotels.

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1025

At PVG in 2013 after a 24 hour delay and flight from LHR, I was heading to the taxi queue when someone claiming taxi grabed my bag out of my hand and took me to a "taxi" parked in the normal lot before I had to chance to even think.

Demanded up front payment about 3 times more what it should have cost (but really what a taxi from home to CBR does cost...)

06 Nov 2015

Total posts 5

I encountered something similar in Shanghai in a high class Chinese restaurant. The "waiter" was well dressed in a black suit and spoke perfect English to make life easy for us.  He took our orders and asked me to pay upfront. I still hate myself for having paid it. At the end of the meal the check was brought and there was no sign of that well dresssed waiter. The staff screamed at me until I paid it again. Lesson well learnt

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Mar 2013

Total posts 134

Of course, don't let the tea scam put you off helping locals with their English. I've met some very genuine and nice people by doing this. As always when travelling, just keep  your wits about you. 


20 May 2011

Total posts 13

I avoid all requests to visit art galleries, see paintings, drink Chinese tea , learn the language  etc. 

 I used to be polite with the people, but, after a while, I just ignore the scammers.

Oh yes, if you are in Beijing, and are visiting the Forbidden City, AVOID taking one of the little motor cycle taxis with a small cabin for a passenger.  They will try to rip you off as well.


11 Nov 2015

Total posts 2

I travel to China regularly. On my first trip i was asked to pay for a meal in a mid-market by credit card, which was 'declined' - so i used another credit card - again 'declined' - so staff said we will try again back at the counter. The cards were out of my sight for no more that 3-4 minutes.

In that time, my cards were either copied or photographed and used fraudulently across the next 48 hours. My bank were a nightmare to deal with inidentally and it took me over 3 months to retrieve over $4k in 'purchases' etc.

I now use a bank global travel card, which at leasts protects me for the amount on the card only, as opposed to my actual credit card with a much larger limit. Recommend these to any traveller actually. And never let you card out of your sight.

30 Sep 2018

Total posts 1

how to avoid scams in china.

1.never be talked into anything by English speaking Chinese you don't your research into the places you are matter how nice or genuine they(either female or male) seem to be.
2.just ignore them by not looking into their eyes.they will try to talk to you.pretend they are not present.soon they will feel uneasy talking to someone who seems to be blind to them and they will leave you alone. be patient.dont try to push them away or threaten don't want to create a scene.
3.always use legitimate services ie taxi ranks where you see people queuing up.
4.dont be tempted to take up cheap offers unless you know before hand and done your homework.never allow them(people you just met or don't know well) to convince you otherwise.
5. there are honest people everywhere.just be careful and selective and always be on guard.have a good measure of skepticism.
6.if you should think of making friends or knowing people ,always take the initiative and go up to them, rather than they come up to you.that way you are more likely to find genuine people who may be of help to you.

happy travels

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