Scams, scams and more scams; they’re everywhere. And traveling to China is no different, with fresh off the boat foreigners as much at risk as anybody else, probably more so. One of the most common scams that people need to watch out for involves, that most Chinese of beverages, tea.
The scam starts when an unsuspecting person is welcomed by a group of attractive English-speaking girls. Little do they know that these women are latter-day sirens ready to pounce on male (though not exclusively) weakness. The feminine gaggle will approach the victim and engage in pleasant idle chit-chat – the sort of everyday pleasantries that seem all too normal. After a little time has passed, one of the women will invite their new ‘friend’ for a cup of Chinese tea to continue the conversation. On saying yes, they drag their unsuspecting tourist (or whoever else it may be) to an empty tea house where they order drinks. But, when the bill arrives there is a problem, a big problem. The bill is astronomical – a couple of thousand RMB for a few cups of tea, anyone? And travelers from all over the world are entrapped in this, less than quaint, little tea party.
The tea scam is all-too-common in many of the larger cities, particularly in Shanghai and Beijing. Keoni Everington, a web and marketing manager and kung fu grandmaster, was lured to a tea house in Shanghai in 1998 when he was new to China. It was Everington’s first night in Shanghai and he decided on taking a relaxing stroll along the famous Bund. On crossing a bridge, he was approached by two young, pretty college girls wanting to practice their oral English. “I had just arrived and they seemed friendly enough,” said Everington. Adding “I thought it would be safe and harmless. How much could a cup of tea cost anyway?” Now, after having lived in China for many years, he realizes that they have all the characteristics he should have been looking out for all-along: young, seemingly naive, and desperate for tea and friendship. If only he knew then what he knows now.
Heading down a dark alley, Everington was taken into a heidian (a fake restaurant). In the worse case scenario you may be forced to empty your entire bank account. “The place was dark and there very few tables. I thought something was up, when immediately large plates of aged seafood were placed in front of me, and I wasn’t even ever shown a menu,” he says. Adding, “I told them I didn’t even like seafood but they told me not to worry and that everything was taken care of. Ha, they certainly took care of me all right.”
After eating a little seafood and drinking a little tea so as to not appear rude, he was presented with a check. It was for over 1,000 RMB. “I thought the girls were going to help pay, but they opened there wallets and just had a few mao in them,” he said. Fortunately he kept his wits about him. Realizing he had about 600 on him, he went to the toilet and hid over half the money in his shoe, telling the owners he only had 250 RMB on his return. The owners were upset he could not pay the full amount, but accepted what he had when he explained it was he who had been invited. “I only wish someone had let me know before. I had no idea about it at the time. Now I warn people about it when I can,” he said.
These women do whatever it takes to get you to have tea, coffee, beer and food with them. The women have many different ways of attracting people to their seedy little crime scenes, and they have pre-arranged partnerships with the restaurants in question.
A few weeks ago in Tiananmen Square, a couple of pretty college-aged girls tried to scam me and a friend. When we told them we did not want to go for coffee. An older Chinese man ran out and began yelling at them. He was clearly angry the scam had not worked. Now I just want as many people to be as aware of this as possible, too many trusting people get caught up in this.
There are a few ways to avoid having to pay ridiculous prices for a few cups of tea. One is to not get caught up in a conversation with strangers. Avoiding conversations with strangers is the most difficult part of avoiding the scam because when traveling to a foreign country you want to talk to as many people as possible, of course. But in China, it might be best to avoid invitations to tea if you want to avoid being scammed.
The second way to avoid this scam is to avoid tourist attractions and touristy bars. In many of these restaurants a person will be given a menu that has reasonable prices on the menu. But when they are finished with their meal and ask for the check, they are given a bill that is way more than what they should be paying. On asking to see the menu again, they will be given a menu that has prices that are more expensive than the original menu. Perhaps it is even worth taking a picture of the menu before you order and asking the prices of the dish before ordering. If you are ever in this situation, you should make sure you threaten to call the police and refuse to pay for the meal. Walk outside of the restaurant and wait out front until the police arrive. If you order tea and coffee at established places always take precautions, particularly at tourist restaurants.