What are the most common tourist scams in China and how can you avoid them? As a tourist in China – or any foreign country – there’s almost no way around it: you’re at high risk to run into tourist scams. You’ve got a big, fat target on your back that says “I have money!”. Scam artists, beggars and sometimes even the “average joe” see you as a gullible visitor with plenty of money. So what can you do?
Nothing dampens a travel experience faster than getting scammed or robbed. It tends to ruin the rest of your trip and leave a cloud over the travel memory.
Thankfully, if you’re properly prepared, it’s fairly easy to dodge these common scams whether you’re traveling solo or joining a tour group in China. They’re not overly sophisticated.
Below I want to share with you 5 types of tourist scams in China that I’ve experienced first hand during my 10 years of travel as well as heard from other travelers. The more you know, the easier it will be to avoid falling prey to these scams.
Scam #1: Receiving Counterfeit Chinese Money
The most frustrating scams in China I’ve run across are the money scams. Seriously, as a first-time visitor to China, how are you supposed to be able to tell the difference between a real bank note and a counterfeit? Thankfully this scam is becoming more rare as penalties for counterfeit money in China are high and very stiff.
Still, it’s good to be aware.
How the Counterfeit Money Scam Plays Out
The Chinese counterfeit money scam plays out in one of two primary ways:
- You give a taxi driver a 100 or 50 RMB note and they secretly switch it with a fake note and claim you gave them the fake one. It’s a classic “your word against mine” scam where police can be of very little help, so if you never saw the switch you’re left paying yet another 100 RMB.
- You pay a small charge to somebody with a 100 RMB note. In return, they give you a fake 50 RMB note while the rest of the change is real. This usually only happens in taxis or with street vendors.
How to Avoid the Counterfeit Money Scam
This is actually a pretty easy scam to avoid if you’re careful, and it doesn’t even require you learning what real Chinese money looks/feels like (although it’s not a bad idea to learn how to spot fake Chinese currency). There are three things you should do:
- Get your cash from a reputable source. This means you should withdraw cash from a Chinese bank, a local Chinese ATM machine or exchange cash with a reputable money changer (i.e. not the guys on the street).
- I always advise people to try and break their 100 RMB bills at established businesses, not single-person services like taxis or tour guides. This means going into a grocery store and paying for a simple Coke with a 100, then using the change for things like taxis. Frankly, taxis drivers don’t like taking 100 RMB notes anyway so most of them will be thankful you did.
- If you do know what real Chinese yuan should look and feel like, don’t be afraid to inspect the cash. Compare it with the cash you got from the bank that you know is real. It’s common practice here in China for any store to inspect the money you give them to ensure authenticity. You can do it to.
Scam #2: Transportation Scams in China
I landed at a major airport here in China earlier this year and had about a 10 minute debate with a taxi driver about the cost of the taxi. He wanted a flat rate (which was way too high) and I wanted him to use the meter.
Eventually I won, mostly because I live here and know exactly how much things should cost, but the headache of negotiating my taxi was still terrible. You can expect the same to happen to you at some point.
How Transportation Scams Play Out
I categorize Chinese transportation scams into three different types:
- Taxi Scams: Taxis who want to charge you a flat rate instead of using the designated meter.
- Black Taxi Scams: While I use black taxis often, the scam I’m referring to here is when a black taxi switches prices on you (i.e. “I didn’t say 30 RMB, I said 300 RMB!”) or just begins taking you without negotiating price and then charges an exorbitant sum once you arrive.
- Tour Bus Scams: You get what you pay for. Sure there are some tours that are dirt cheap, but what happens is that they take you around to every single tourist trap around town to make up the cost.
How to Avoid Transportation Scams
Transportation scams in China are pretty easy to avoid as long as you’re willing to do the uncomfortable: negotiate all the details before you begin your ride. This includes not only pricing but also exactly where you’re going and if there will be any stops along the way. (read here for tips on taking a taxi in China)
Also, be willing to stand your ground. I know it’s easier for me to say that as a man, but Chinese women are known to be feisty and causing a scene can sometimes help a situation.
I once embarrassed a taxi driver by asking his colleagues if he was actually from around here or if he was just ignorant of the law. He wasn’t happy with me, but I got a fair price and arrived where I needed to be.
Finally, there’s one thing you can do, especially with legal taxis, that works almost every time. If they begin trying to scam you or take advantage of you, take a picture of their registration (which should be visibly displayed on the dashboard) as well as their license plate. Tell the driver that you will report them to the authorities if they continue their scamming ways. Almost 90% of the time this has worked for me.
Other Transportation Tips in China
- Be wary of getting a flat-rate quote from a driver when with a group of people. A common scam is for the driver to arrive and then announce “Hey, that price was per person, not for the whole group!” Again, negotiate all the details beforehand.
- When arriving at transportation hubs (airports, train stations, etc.), just give a terse “no” when people approach you wanting to drive you somewhere. This is almost a sure rip-off. It’s best to find the official taxi line and wait behind others unless you’re in a huge rush. For more info, check out my China train guide.
- Pedicab rickshaws are another place where people can easily get scammed, so make sure you know the price beforehand. Remember, only tourist use these so you should expect a higher price. An unbelievably low price is a sign of a possible scam.
Scam #3: The Beggar Scams in China
This isn’t always a scam but it still makes me a bit unhappy. It irks me mostly because I know there are legitimately needy people all over China. This is a common scam all across China. Sadly, my general rule, especially in tourist areas, is to never give money to beggars.
Not all beggars deserve this though, so perhaps I should clarify:
- The Grabby Beggars: These are the people that grab your shirt and start making hand gestures signaling the need for money. Most people tend to give money just to get them off their back because they’re relentless. The problem here is that by giving money you’re encouraging this behavior, which hurts future travelers to China (and China’s image). I never give money in this situation.
- The “For a Cause” Beggars: Every once in a while on a bus or subway I’ll be approached by somebody (usually deaf, mute, or acting like it) who shoves a piece of paper in my face that talks about some cause. These are too easy to fake, however, and many of those type of cases have been reported in the media so I tend to just shake my head no.
- Disabled Beggars: This is heart-breaking. Usually these people who are missing limbs or are disfigured in some way just sit by the street with piercing eyes that reach into your soul. I’m more inclined to give money in this case, and even something as little as 5 yuan (not even US$1) goes a long way for them.
- Silent Beggars: You’ll see these people on the street with their head hung down and a sign on the ground that details their situation. If you can’t read Chinese you’ll never know exactly what’s wrong – usually it’s a relative or family situation (see the best tools to help you learn to read Chinese). I’ve given in these situations before but most of the time I watch the local Chinese to see what they do.
- Fake Monks: This is an actual scam where people dress up as monks asking for donations. While some may be real, many are also fake. It’s often safer to give money at a monastery if you’re so inclined, instead of to an individual.
This beggar in Chengdu was followed around by reporters and (surprise!) found to be perfectly able to walk and work.
Scam #4: China Tea House / Art School Scams
The Chinese Tea House scam is a well-documented scam that continues mostly because it still works. The scammer is usually college age students or a beautiful young lady and the target is most often a solo male. You’re going to find this scam mostly in the tourist areas of larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai.
How The Tea House / Art School Scams Work
The gist of the scam is that a Chinese person will come up to you and begin very innocent conversation. After trust has been established they will ask if you want to join them and their friends for tea (“I know this great place you’ll love! Very traditional Chinese tea!”) or to come view their traditional artwork.
With the tea house scam you arrive to sample some tea and your new friend suddenly disappears, leaving you to pay for the overpriced tea (the Chinese person got a commission for bringing you there).
With the Art School Scam, they use the trust they’ve created with you to guilt you into buying cheap art for inflated prices. You justify it by saying to yourself “The art isn’t bad and now I’ll have a story of how I met the painter!” but the fact is it’s probably mass-produced, cheap art and you’re getting ripped-off.
How to Avoid these Scams
The very best way to avoid these types of tourist scams in China is to be wary of any person who initiates contact with you. Chinese people are generally very introverted people and such genuine contact isn’t normal. I’m not saying to avoid the locals, just be on guard if an overly-friendly person approaches you.
Here are three simple tips to keep you safe from this scam:
- Test your new “friend”. If somebody asks you to go somewhere with them, test them out by suggesting another good place you know about. If they insist on theirs, you know it’s a scam.
- Never eat or drink without knowing the price first. Variations of this scam include KTVs, bars and other places where they get you to drink and only later show you the crazy-high bill. Once you’ve consumed their product, you’re stuck.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to say NO. It may feel rude to you, especially as this art students looks at you with pleading eyes, but you don’t have to buy anything. Same with food and drink. Even if they put it on the table you don’t have to eat or drink it. As they used to teach me in school, “just say no”.
Scam #5: China’s Price Gouging Scams
Finally, I’m going to mention the price gouging scams in China even though most of it’s already been covered in the scams above. Price gouging is where you are quoted at an outrageous price just because you have a foreign face. While not technically a “scam”, I put that in quotation marks just because it’s more common practice here in China than anything else.
How Price Gouging in China Works
As you’ll find when you start shopping in China, most items aren’t individually priced, leaving you to ask how much everything costs. Because haggling is part of business here, shop owners are used to pricing high with the understanding that they’ll discount. This mentality kicks into overdrive when they see a foreign face, often quoting 5-10x’s the usual cost.
Price gouging happens when hiring cars, shopping at the market and especially once you’re in a tourist zone. (read this for more on how to haggle in China)
How to Avoid Price Gouging
You need to expect to pay higher than locals in many cases, so don’t sweat a couple dollars. What’s hard is when they’re exponentially raising your price.
The best way to avoid this is to know beforehand how much something should cost. Watch a local buy it. Better yet, ask a local how much they would pay for it.
Finally, be prepared to haggle for most anything that doesn’t have a price tag on it, even if that’s uncomfortable for you.
Conclusion | Avoiding Common Scams in China
Well that covers the 5 most common scams here in China. My hope is that you will never have to experience these scams but it’s good to be prepared anyway.
Whether it’s the fake money scam, transportation scam, beggar scam, tea house scam or just a simple price gouging scam in China, be on guard. Be alert, ask questions and be willing to stand your ground or say “no”. All of these will help you along the way.
I recognize that this isn’t a comprehensive list of scams in China, though. If you’ve run across a scam not listed here please let me know in the comments below!