Although usually a very safe city, Beijing has been known to set up traps that catch not only inexperienced tourists, but even the most savvy locals. Here are some common scams to be on the lookout for so you know when to become assertive and just say ‘NO’.
Fake tea ceremony
It seems that everyone has heard of them, but still tea ceremony scammers manage to get the best of unsuspecting visitors to China’s capital. The scenario is well-known and simple – a friendly lady, speaking suspiciously good English, invites the foreigner for a chat over some Chinese tea. She may introduce herself as a student, or perhaps a young professional wanting to practice English. After consuming copious amounts of tea, the bill for the whole affair can add up to over RMB1000 (US$145).
The easiest way to avoid such a situation is to not agree to follow a stranger into a place they are eagerly suggesting. If you are genuinely looking for conversation, putting forward your own suggestion may be useful to see how they would feel about a change in location. If worst comes to worst – refuse to pay the bill and threaten to get the police involved. There is no legal obligation to pay and the scammers know it.
Beijing has great souvenirs on offer to bring home, but shopping as a tourist can be quite an adventure. This is not necessarily a scam, but rather an international truth and something to watch out for when picking out memorabilia to bring home. In places frequented by tourists, which as a rule is most places in the city centre, prices can severely inflated. In markets, where price setting is very arbitrary, there is a chance to bargain, so don’t settle for what is first asked – start by cutting the price at least in half. Feel free to relax and joke with the vendor; haggling can be exciting and fun.
Privately owned cars masquerading as legal taxis can be found around busy transport hubs or clubs and bars late at night. They will have the appearance of a taxi, with lights and even a meter. Moreover they will get you where you are going, but for as much as triple or quadruple the price. For those arriving by plane or train, remember that there are designated taxi stands – simple ‘taxi’ signs will lead you to them. At a busy hour, these stands will have a queue, but the taxis keep coming on a regular basis and it’s not worth overpaying an illegal driver to skip the wait.
For taxis around the city, keep in mind the true appearance of a legal taxi – it has a yellow colour, a meter and the number plates start with a ‘B’. Other cars, unless you are catching a Didi (the Chinese equivalent of Uber), will not be official taxis, so will not provide receipts or any price guarantee.
Long-term visitors in Beijing should consider renting an apartment, a wise choice in any city. Moreover, the rental market in Beijing is filled with options for foreigners and there are few restrictions when it comes to subletting and short-term renting. As long as you are living in a legal property and registered at your local police station – there is no problem. Here’s the catch though – the Beijing property market is unfortunately packed with self-proclaimed landlords, subletting their apartments at often significantly inflated prices. Subletting is a common practice, especially with Beijing’s floating foreigner population; rooms and apartments get passed backwards and forwards all the time.
That being said, fake landlords pose two significant issues: firstly, they don’t own the property you live at, thus having the real owner show up at your doorstep any time is always a threat. Secondly, any contract with them is not legally binding and can be treated as a set of guidelines, rather than rules reinforced by law. To keep out of trouble, make sure your landlord provides you with a certificate of ownership linked to their ID card and always double check that they have the right to register you in your place of residence at the exact address you live at, not a random neighbouring one.
Overall Beijing is a relatively safe city and violent crimes and muggings are not common. Yet, as in any crowded touristy capital, pickpocketing is an issue and something to always keep in mind whilst enjoying the city. Pickpockets target tourists, especially those showing visible signs of being a tourist – maps, waist packs, cameras. The best way to stay safe is remaining alert and keeping valuables well-hidden. In crowds and whilst travelling via public transport, be mindful of your belongings and be attentive when being pushed around by masses of people.
Taking into account all the above, it’s only fair to say that it’s not necessary to suspect every friendly stranger of attempting to pull off a scam. Beijing is also full of people happy and willing to help a lost foreigner out of good will. As in any situation, common sense is always the call of the day. Be wise in your choices and keep safe!