5 Common Travel Scams in China
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 5 of the most common scams that visitors fall for in some big Chinese cities – we show you how to spot them, and better, how to avoid them completely.
The fake taxi scam
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 ($149) for a journey that should actually cost around ¥100 ($20), or the driver may have a dodgy taxi meter installed that cranks up way too quickly.
How to avoid it: Be wary of anyone offering you a taxi, and double-check the vehicle you're about to enter. Do not get in taxis whose drivers are too optimistic, instead, wait the taxis at appointed areas.
The fake money scam
There are two ways this scam works: you'll either make a purchase or receive counterfeit notes in your change; or you'll hand over a genuine note, but it'll be quickly substituted for a fake, and then declined by the merchant who "returns" it to you.
Counterfeiting efforts are generally centered 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 and uneven 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.
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 or thousands of RMB, 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 cheap tour scam
Only $10 to visit the famous tourist site? What a bargain!
Yet for this dedicated trip, you'll make a lot of stops along the way and spend much more time there than at the site itself – one stop for Chinese medicine, one for overpriced souvenirs, another for tea... you'll still get to the site, 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 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 and talking about your visit.
Then as your conversation naturally progresses to ask what they do for work – it's casually mentioned that they're an art student, and 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.
Have you been scammed before? What is your idea of avoiding the scams in China? Tell us your ideas!