Thursday, February 27, 2014

Scam City Shanghai

Has anyone seen the show Scam City on National Geographic? The premise is simple, really. The host visits some of the world’s most popular cities in an effort to expose the darker side of tourism. He intentionally falls victim to swindlers to display local adaptations of popular scams such as pick pockets, expensive cab fares, or bars luring people in with adult entertainment at a high cost. Thankfully, I have been lucky enough not to be on the receiving end of any scams in Shanghai. However, I have friends (both visitors and locals) who have been. In an effort to keep others from following prey, here is a rundown of the most common scams in Shanghai.

Tea Ceremony/English student
You'll be approached in a tourist spot (this is very common in People's Square) by someone claiming they are an English student at a local university. Then comes the hook. The "student" will ask if you would mind helping them practice their English. In exchange, they will offer to treat you to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. After your new friend orders snacks and tea, they will excuse themselves. The bill will arrive shortly after and you will be forced to pay the exorbitant cost of the meal.

There are some actual students who may approach you to practice English. Just let them know you will be picking the location.

Dropped Metro Card
This trick that has gotten many Shanghai newbies. The taxi driver will "accidentally" drop your transportation card as he attempts to hand it back to you. The taxi driver likely saw that you had a lot of money on your card and dropped it by his feet to quickly switch it for an empty one. An easy way to circumvent this dupe is by placing a sticker or other identifying marker on your card to confirm the correct one is handed back to you.


Black Taxi 
As much as I complain about Shanghai taxis, only use the official ones. If a car (usually a black car that looks nicer than usual taxis) pulls up next to you and the driver asks where you want to go, or simply says "taxi?", you should walk away. These unmetered "taxis" seek out foreigners and charge outlandish fares, or worse.

If you are hanging out on Nanjing Lu or other tourist spots, be on the lookout. Typically, a single man or a pair of women with babies strapped to their chests approach you from behind, unzip your bag, and make off with anything inside (many a friend has lost an iPhone this way). Remember to keep your bags in front of you and do not place valuables in your back pocket.

This con is mostly directed at men visiting Shanghai. If some pretty Chinese girls randomly ask if you want to go to KTV, the correct answer is NO. It's not uncommon for girls to find naive foreigners to go out drinking with them, run up a huge bill and then leave you to foot it. Generally speaking, any time you are going to a bar with strangers, you should always pay for drinks as you go. Running up a bar tab with people you don't know can be a dangerous exercise.

As with most things, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. While most of these schemes will only result in a loss of your money (and perhaps dignity), many of them can become dangerous if you refuse to pay. If you find yourself in one of these situations, it is often best to pay the bill and then dial 110 for the police or 962288 for bilingual assistance. You should also follow up directly with your credit card company to quickly dispute the charges. Overall, I feel much safer in Shanghai than I did in large cities back in the US, however, all big cities come with some level of crime. It's best to be aware of the types of crimes you may encounter.


  1. Ugh, the tea scam! I can't believe I fell for it! But I was lucky enough to swindle my way out with a bill of 300RMB (I consider it a win, since I've heard of stories how people lost about 1000 kuai in cases like this)... So, I lost some money and my dignity, BUT it was a valuable lesson not to trust anyone and to be careful. Never took these warnings seriously, but after that one time... well, that did the trick for me.

    1. It's so nice when a friendly person approaches you in a foreign city, that you often leave your guard down. Glad to hear you didn't lose too much money.

  2. we almost got dropped-metro-card-scammed.... the cabbie scanned and dropped it all in one quick half a second, but then he could see it had only like 5 kaui on it, so he gave it back :) we actually didn't know this was a common scam until Lesley informed us..... we've had stickers on our cards ever since.

    1. I have to admit that I find this one pretty clever. I'm glad your card didn't have more on it!

  3. my boyfriend got scammed last year at peoples square too!
    He got away with about 500 RMB.

    The funny thing was he was back there about a month later, and the same people approached him and had no idea who he was!

    1. How funny that he was approached twice! At least he didn't fall for it again.


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