I had mixed feelings about my trip to Beijing. Of course I was excited. How can you not be excited when you're spending a week exploring a city with such cultural landmarks as the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven? It's a treasure trove of sites to explore and I was pretty much frothing at the mouth in anticipation of sinking my teeth into it. On the other hand, I was visiting Beijing during a period of high tension between Japan and China. The neighboring countries have a very long, complicated history that has resulted in a current situation where it's safe to say that a friendly dinner party isn't in the cards for these two.
Tension between the two nations ebbs and flows like the tide, and my arrival into Beijing was at the height of high tide in that cycle. A week prior to my arrival protesters in a major Chinese city had looted a Japanese department store as part of a demonstration against Japan nationalizing the Senkaku Islands, which are called the Diaoyu Islands in mainland China. Protests were held in 16 other Chinese cities, many of which turned violent. As an American this really wouldn't be of much concern to me, but I'm also half-Japanese. I didn't really think it would be an issue for me but I was debating whether or not I should be open about my background when making my way across Beijing over the week. As I've noted in other posts, my racially ambiguous heritage tends to be subject to questions from locals when I travel quite often.
With all this in mind, I was on guard and doing what I could to make sure I was safe during my visit. My trip ended up going just fine from a safety standpoint, even when locals learned that I was half-Japanese. The trip wasn't without incident though, as my guard was raised on the safety front but I failed to keep vigilant in another area - avoiding scams.
THE FUCK UP
It wasn't like I was not at least nominally prepared before arriving in Beijing, but that doesn't mean I didn't end up buying some tea that I didn't want. So what went wrong?
I like to think I'm pretty street smart after all these years of travel and can usually spot a scam from a mile away. My research prior to arriving in Beijing even included a warning about what is often called the "Beijing Tea House scam". Tourists (usually single men but not limited to that demographic) are often approached by friendly locals (often women) who identify as students. After striking up conversation they suggest that you move the friendly tête-à-tête to a tea house nearby. Once the unsuspecting traveler has arrived at the tea house, they're escorted to a private room and plied with multiple types of tea which they are encouraged to sample. Often times snacks are laid out for the duo as well. Once all is said and done, the traveler is presented with a bill for the experience with charge for each tea sampled, the private room, and the snacks. Expected payment is often several hundred dollars.
Having read about it, I thought I was prepared. Travel has a way of laughing in your face and teaching you a lesson whether you want to have it or not, and that certainly was the case on this trip. A big, fat smack in the face.
So how exactly did I fall for this scam despite being fully aware of its existence? Like most things in life, necessity is the mother of innovation and the scammers in Beijing had innovated. The scam came to me in sheep's clothing and I was lulled into complacency. Woe is me. Here's how it went down....
Like many visitors to Beijing, I was interested in taking a day trip out of the city to the famous Great Wall. Rather than booking on a guided day tour with other travelers, I booked a private driver for the day to take me to a remote section of the Wall. I had contacted a driver through email that had been recommended to me by another traveler, but the day before our trip I was notified that he had a family issue and wouldn't be able to make the trip. He offered to find another driver that could take me, and I accepted his offer.
The replacement driver picked me up on time from my hotel in central Beijing. He mentioned that we could make a quick stop at the famous Bird's Nest Stadium from the Beijing Olympics, which I was open to doing. He even hopped out of the car and took a picture for me. Not the best picture in the world, admittedly. So far, so good. He seemed nice and trustworthy.
Back in the car, we started to head out of the city into the surrounding countryside when suddenly we pulled off of the main road. When I asked why we had pulled off the road he mentioned that he needed to make a quick stop to use the restroom. No biggie. He pulled into a parking lot outside of a building with Chinese writing and darted inside. I waited in the car for a few minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. After a little while longer I made the decision to leave the car and enter the building to track him down. Was something wrong?
Inside I found a shop with a cafe area. My driver was sitting down at a table having a glass of tea with two women. When he saw me walking in he immediately stood up and apologized, saying he just realized how long he had been. He was going to hurry off to use the bathroom now, so why didn't I sit down and wait for him. I was annoyed by this waste of time but ultimately decided that since he had the keys to the car I needed to make nice. Sure, I'll wait.
When he disappeared up some stairs and I sat down at the table to wait, suddenly a flurry of activity erupted around me as glasses of tea and snacks were laid out for me. And now I knew what was happening. My driver had set me up and I was in the midst of an updated, modified Beijing Tea House scam. No need to have people approach me on the street, I was captive here at the tea house with no way to leave because my driver was in on the scam.
Once I let the flood of angry wash over my body and out through my toes, I decided I essentially had two options:
Call everyone's bluff and potentially ruin the remainder of my day but stand up for myself and not let myself get taken advantage of despite the awkwardness of it all.
Play along with the gambit and try to minimize my financial commitment and salvage the day.
If you know anything about me, I'm much more the type of person who confronts people when I feel like they've wronged me. But when traveling, you often have to make choices that are outside of your normal mode of operation. I had to think about how souring my relationship with my driver by taking him to task about putting me in this scam could mean I wouldn't see the Great Wall, or potentially abandoned on the side of the road. It was my very last day in Beijing and my luggage was in the car. He was dropping me off at my airport hotel for the evening so I could catch my very early morning flight out. If I confronted everyone, would he react badly and leave? I needed to be smart with my next move.
Did I know for sure that things would sour if I confronted everyone involved? No. But I was in the middle of suburban Beijing without any grasp of Chinese and the man had my luggage in the trunk of his car. I decided it was best to play it safe and try to extricate myself from the scam as peacefully as possible and deal with the situation after I was delivered to my hotel. I politely excused myself from the table and instead wandered the aisle of the store. I selected a small tin of pre-packaged tea that I purchased. After a bit of negotiation, I only paid an over priced $10 USD for it. I could tell they were disappointed with the haul but the release of cash was enough to make my driver reappear and for us to make our way out to a very successful day at the Great Wall.
When the driver dropped me off at the hotel and I had my luggage out of his trunk and in my hand, I paid him the cash for the day. As I handed it over to him, I said "Here's the fee for the day. I was going to add extra for a tip but I think we both know why that's not going to happen." The smile he had on has face melted away a bit as he locked eyes with me. I thought for a second he was going to get angry but instead he just said, "OK. Good bye." When I logged into the hotel's wifi I fired off an email to the original driver who had asked this man to fill in so I could let him know that he had taken me to a tea house scam and that I would highly suggest he not ask this person to fill in for him in the future. Based on the high recommendation I received for him, I was confident that this wasn't his typical mode of business and a follow up email with the person who had recommended the driver confirmed they had not had any issues with their trip. I don't think the original driver was involved at all, he just selected poorly when it came to a stand-in.
Sadly, falling for a scam is just one of those things that will happen to you at one time or another when you're traveling. Traveling more often means you become much more attuned to when it's happening, but it doesn't make you immune to the experience whatsoever. The best thing you can do to prepare yourself is to make sure you keep yourself abreast of the types of scams that are common wherever it is you're headed. I typically use two sources of information on scams prior to leaving on a trip, so I'll walk you through those two sources now.
One excellent place to find information on potential scams is the United States Department of State's (DoS) website. Their travel section (LINK) has a map of the world from which you can click on the shape of any country or territory in the world. Or, if you're not really into shapes, you can simply type the country's name into a search bar.
Once you're on the country's page, click on the "Safety and Security" tab. While the majority of the section is often devoted to current war zone and terrorist activity, DoS also uses this section as a means of notifying travelers of any scams that are being actively run on visitors.
These scam notices can range from a list of bars and clubs where tourists have reported people attempting to slip them date rape drugs to common scams on public transit or at major tourists sites designed to part you with a few dollars. See the example below of three scams that are currently posted on the DoS's website for Russia.
Another source (or sources) that I use when traveling to keep abreast of scams is to check the crowd-sourced travel information websites Wikivoyage.org (LINK) and Wikitravel.org (LINK). Without getting into too much drama, Wikitravel was my go-to site for travel information but a few years back, due to some disagreements with the site's owner, many of the content providers to the site moved over to Wikivoyage. It's been a bit of a mess ever since but to cover all bases I often check both sites prior to travel. They're great sources of information on monuments, temples, churches, and any other travel tidbit you might be interested in, but they also keep a "Stay Safe" section on most of their articles that goes over safety and common scams in the area.
The snippet above is from Wikivoyage's Buenos Aires article. Note that it warns of the "hand cream" scam where someone will squirt a liquid onto you and sudden other bystanders will come to help you clean up. The goal is to distract you with the flurry of people helping you, consequently you don't notice yourself getting robbed/pickpocketed. This actually happened to me while I was traveling in Buenos Aires but unlike my bad luck in Beijing, it went down just as noted here so as soon as I was sprayed with lotion I immediately warded off anyone attempting to help me clean up. I even had packed wet wipes with me just in case so I could clean up without assistance!
Another thing that's nice about the way Wikivoyage and Wikitravel are structured is that they keep articles for various levels of travel as well. You can see read an article devoted to something as bit as an entire continent or as small as a neighborhood in a major city. This is useful as many of the warnings given by the DoS website can be general or specific to just the major cities in a given country. The Wikitravel/Wikivoyage option can give you information on scams that are specific to singular monuments or areas of a city.
Keep in mind that knowing is only half the battle. Often times travelers are so nervous about being in a new destination that they do things or talk to people that their intuition tells them are bad ideas. A good example of this comes to mind when I think about a recent trip I took to New Orleans. The area along the waterfront and Jackson Square is filled with quite a few folks who are looking to part a few dollars from your wallet. One of the most popular tactics is for someone to approach you and bet you a sum of money that they can tell you where you got your shoes. Once you agree, they reply that you've "got them on your feet". Clever, eh?
These folks are all over the place and the funny thing I noticed while sitting on a bench one afternoon is that despite visitors clearly seeing these people attempting this tactic on others, out of politeness they would talk to and engage with the people when they approached them. This often times turned uncomfortable for people as they attempted to extricate themselves from the situation after having been nice and engaging off the bat and often times they ended up giving over a few dollars just to avoid the awkwardness. It could have all been avoided it they had simply offered a firm "No, thank you" when approached, especially since they could see what the jig was about prior to being approached.
Now, I'm not saying you should be rude to anyone. I'm also not saying that when you're a visitor in a new destination you should avoid speaking to anyone who approaches you out of the blue. I have had plenty of wonderful, engaging conversations with locals when I've traveled by having someone say hello out of the blue. Don't close yourself off to that possibility. Just be aware of your surroundings and listen to your gut. If the person approaching you is doing more than just engaging in chit chat (suggesting you go somewhere, offering you help when you don't need it), raise your guard and don't be afraid to simply say "No thank you" and walk away.
Remember - just because you're traveling doesn't mean you've lost your right to say no. Use it wisely.
LET'S WRAP IT UP FOLKS
While I think these are all useful things to know so that you can keep informed about your destination and potentially avoid being scammed, the reality of the situation is that no matter how prepared you might be you're likely to fall victim to a scam at some point in time. No amount of preparation will make you completely immune to the ingenuity of scammers or simply making a mistake. Shit happens.
With that in mind, it's important for a traveler to be prepared for what happens when the inevitable scam does occur. As I mentioned above, when I found myself in the tea house scam on the outskirts of Beijing I needed to make some choices quickly to address how I was going to deal with the situation. My natural instinct would have been to be confrontational but when I weighed all the information it really didn't seem like the best option. When making choices on the road, I almost always choose the cautious option.
I had to swallow my pride a bit and part with a little bit of cash to get out of the situation. Knowing the scams ahead of time is one thing, but a good traveler also knows how to maneuver out of a scam with the least amount of damage if they discover they've fallen into the snare. There's value in mentally preparing for what to do when things go wrong when you're on the road, and that's something I think many people overlook. The less time you spend mentally kicking yourself for making a mistake, the less time you spend letting the scammers trap you further into the grift.
So that, ladies and gents, is my little ditty on scams, how to avoid them, and what to do when you fall for them. I hope you found it at least a little bit entertaining and perhaps a bit informative! Until next time.....