Travel Scams in China

street in China with no English

Avoid Getting Ripped Off in China


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“She started at like, 8,000, and then by the end, I got her down to 200!”

I heard an American girl excitedly telling her tour group in Beijing’s Silk Market. Aaaah! She was ruining it for the rest of us! I wanted to tell her that she hadn’t saved 7,800 RMB with her amazing bargaining skills.

8000 RMB is the price for some faceless tourist…if you let the vendor’s starting price influence your assessment of the product’s worth, you are the overpaying idiot.

Even worse, that helps to reinforce the stereotype of foreigners as gullible, overpaying tourists, easy marks for any unscrupulous vendor.

Places like the Silk Market are still a must-see on your trip to China, but a whole niche market exists to sell souvenirs to short-term vacationers and business travelers on a Western salary, so don’t expect any real bargains here – expect one big China scam.

Get off the beaten track for better prices, and a break from aggressive semi-English hawking. Quality shopping, honest taxidrivers and legitimate tours are out there, if you know where to look.

Shopping Scams in China

Watch this disappear!

Watch carefully. Did you ever see a magician when you were a kid? Do you remember staring intently to find out where the extra card went? Unscrupulous Chinese vendors are also masters of legerdemain, so watch carefully as you browse. China scam!

Make sure you get your change. When dealing with strange currency, your second language (or your phrasebook) and reshuffling your bag to accommodate your new purchase, you may find you’ve been waved out of the stall without that 10 Kwai note.

Inspect your merchandise carefully for flaws. Open packages, inspect seams and check everything in detail, then make sure what you’ve chosen actually going into your bag.

This seemed rude to my American sensibilities, but don’t worry, you won’t offend by carefully scrutinizing the product. An honest, reputable vendor will be proud of the opportunity to show you the quality of his merchandise, and will enjoy dealing with a clever laowai [foreigner]!

And a dishonest one… well, it’s best to find out as soon as possible.

One sneaky vendor didn’t have the dress I wanted in my chosen color and size, but that didn’t stop her from making a sale, since she slipped a packaged dress in my chosen color into my pile of purchases, telling me it was a medium.

It didn’t occur to me to inspect, and I was quite disappointed few months later when I tried to squeeze into a small. (I’d consider it one assistant’s unlucky mistake.

I’ve caught other shopkeepers “accidentally” slipping the wrong size into a friend’s bag, only to discover that while they’re so sorry, it’s a mistake, but they don’t have the right size in stock right now)

You can avoid bargaining and most sleight-of-hand scams if you shop at Western-style markets, but you didn’t come all the way to China to shop in a mall, did you? Stay alert, even in the sensory overload of a Chinese market, and enjoy haggling on the streets!

Transportation Scams

When you’re in a new area, or don’t speak the language very well, its hard to avoid the “lost” cabbie taking you in circles to run up the meter.

I hate to say bad things about Chinese cabbies, since some drivers have been more than helpful to me, calling to get directions, being patient with my bad Chinese or helping me with my bags. But, like almost anywhere in the world, some drivers will take visitors for a long, expensive ride.

Make sure the driver uses the meter, especially when you’re leaving a train station or airport, and a tired traveler might look like an easy mark. Pointing to the meter, and starting to get out of the cab often “reminds” the driver to turn it on, or fixes a “broken” meter, even if you don’t have the language skills to argue with him. If you can, walk a few blocks from the train or bus terminal to seem more like a local and avoid the worst taxi problems.

Crowds of would-be tour guides gather at historical attractions, like Beihai Park or the Forbidden City, offering to arrange trips to see Chinese acrobats, Peking opera, the Great Wall, etc.

Most of these are thinly veiled trips from one gift shop to another, with extra surprise fees once you’re outside the city with no transport back. (Grab bus 919 from Deshengmen out to Badaling, it’s inexpensive, convenient and traveling with Chinese tourists to Beijing feels more authentic than going with an English-speaking guide. If you have more time, take a day trip out to one of the less-visited sections of the wall.)

Some bus stations have unlicensed buses and vans outside, promising to take you to your destination for a reduced fare or masquerading as a regular bus, but unlucky passengers may find themselves at a distant highway rest stop, paying a second fare to re-board the bus.

If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your Spidey sense!

The Art Scam in China

Don’t buy art — it’s a total scam in China.

The famous art show ripoff in Tiananmen Square was cleaned up for the Olympics. This was a pretty funny one, where English-speaking “art students” would strike up conversation with overseas visitors and tell them they happen to be in town for an art show across the street.

The show was closing today when I first heard the spiel in 2006, it was closing today when I returned to Beijing in 2007, but the pre-Olympics cleanup really seems to have closed the collection of knockoff art.

Eating Out in China

If you can speak even a little Chinese, you will be immune to a lot of ripoffs. I speak just survival-level Chinese, but understand far more than I can speak, and I always get a kick out of eavesdropping on a Mandarin conversation about how much to charge me. (I’m less excited when I overhear a conversation about my weight, but that’s a discussion for another day!)

I queried a surprisingly high bill once, and the waitress showed us that we’d ordered all the most expensive things on the menu, assuming I couldn’t read Chinese and would confuse pork fried noodles with the chef’s special of sea cucumber, bear paw and other items worth their weight in gold.

With limited Chinese, it’s hard to avoid this one. Most small noodle shops are great sources of cheap and tasty local fare, but there are always a few who see a foreign face as a walking ATM.

While you should be prepared for endless ways to separate Western travelers and their Maobacks, there is very little violent or dangerous crime — just watch out for the scams in China. Have a great time and stay alert!

Meg Stivison has spent two years in China. You can read about China scams and other goodies in her blog at

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