I was in Beijing for less than 15 minutes before getting roped into the Beijing Tea Scam. It almost cost me hundreds of dollars, but luckily I was able to escape it. Learn how to avoid the most common scam in Beijing!
The Beijing Tea Scam
I was such an easy target stepping off the metro in downtown Beijing. Traveling solo, eager to make new friends, and overconfident. I had spent the 2 weeks prior traveling with friends in the Gansu province of Western China, where white people are a rare sight. Adults stared at us, children pointed. I had random people sneak up next to me, while someone else would secretly take our picture together. I was an instant celebrity. I loved it.
The most bizarre moment happening while hiking in Yadan National Park. Someone asked if they could take pictures of us while we ate popcorn. Ummm, what?? Turns out they owned a company called “Just Pop, California Popcorn” and I guess they thought we would be the perfect spokesmen. I may be from California, but that popcorn definitely was not! I assume I’m in an ad for it somewhere.
So when my friends and I parted ways in Gansu, and I left for Beijing to travel solo, I was feeling like a super star. My ego was about to come crashing back down to earth.
My First Mistake
I arrived in Beijing riding high on my newfound popularity, but I wasn’t out in the countryside anymore. This was the big city, where white people are no longer a curiosity. I was walking around downtown for less than 15 minutes when two girls approached me. They were college-aged and innocent looking. They giggled while asking me where I was from, saying how much they loved America, and telling me how cute I was. I ate it up.
They tagged along with me for a few minutes, eventually asking if I was hungry. They said they wanted to come eat with me, so they could continue practicing their English. What was I going to say? I was alone, and two locals wanted to hang out with me. That’s a big reason why people travel solo, to see the world and make new friends along the way. They looked completely normal, and there was nothing odd about them wanting to hang out with a super cool American, right?? What a sucker.
Be wary of anyone who approaches you when traveling, especially in a touristy area
Letting my guard down was my first mistake. Gansu had made me feel like a celebrity, but you need to be very wary of anyone who approaches you when traveling, especially in a touristy area. Most people just aren’t that friendly. They’re not going to walk right up to you and start a conversation, unless they’re selling something or scamming you, or both.
My Second Mistake
They suggested a place to eat, so off we went. There were plenty of other places to eat along the way, but we kept walking, ending up at this sketchy looking karaoke type bar with private rooms. There was only one other person in there, and he was smoking. It looked awful. I remember feeling rude when I said I didn’t want to eat there. They looked so sad and disappointed. Another red flag missed, I just assumed they had horrible taste in restaurants. Leaving that “restaurant” probably saved me, the next location must have been their plan B.
They agreed to take me somewhere else. A very casual place, sort of in an alley, but there were other restaurants around too. It seemed normal enough, so we sat down outside to eat. We hung out there for the next few hours, talking and laughing while we had dinner. We had quickly become great friends. I was having a great first night in Beijing!
Always look at the menu to check prices, even if you’re worried it makes you look cheap!
I had a bowl of soup and a couple beers, they had some wine and ordered some tea for the table. Mind you, this is a very casual restaurant. Meals should have been no more than $5-10 per person, a pot of tea might be a couple dollars. My second mistake? Letting them order for us, without seeing a menu.
How The Beijing Tea Scam Works
The Being Tea Scam (and variations of it) usually goes down something like this:
- The scammers befriend you, gaining your trust
- They suggest you go out for tea, you won’t see a menu until after
- The bill comes, it’s for hundreds of dollars
- Your jaw drops, confusion and panic set in
- They show you a menu, and the “special oolong tea” is listed for $100, $200, maybe even $500 a pot
- The scammers pretend to be equally horrified at how expensive it is, apologize profusely, and offer to split the check with you
- You go home angry, confused, and broke. The scammers get their money back from the restaurant, and go find another victim
Back to My Story…
Ok, so there we are at the restaurant. It’s after midnight at this point, the place is empty. We’re sitting outside, at a table basically in the alley. We had been talking and laughing for hours, having a great time getting to know each other. It was getting late and I was ready to call it a night, so I asked for the check. Earlier in the night I had offered to treat them – such a nice guy.
The waiter brings over the check, and walks away. I take a look at it, and at first I think it says 4000 RMB, but that can’t be right. I take out my phone to confirm the conversion. Ok yeah, 4000 RMB is about $600, I’m obviously reading it wrong, I must be off by a decimal. Damn, $60 is still crazy expensive for what we had, but whatever. I turn and show the bill to my new friend, to confirm that it’s 400 RMB, not 4000. “No, it says 4000” she tells me, looking at me with absolutely no reaction on her face, “it’s ok, they take credit cards.”
Credit cards? Who said anything about credit cards?? Credit cards is not the issue!! How in the world is the bill $600??? That is insanity!!! Why am I the only person who thinks this is crazy???!!! Then it hits me. This is a scam.
Light Dawns on Marblehead
My heart starts pounding out of my chest, a mix of anger, nerves and confusion. I stand up and walk over to the waiter. Unfortunately for them, he’s a small guy, I’m towering over him. “How is this 4000 RMB???” He takes out a menu, and points to the tea page. The pots are listed at 1300RMB, that’s about $200, per pot of tea. “WHAT??? NO, NO WAY!!! That is ridiculous!!!” I’m screaming at him, the girls stand up and start screaming at me “YOU HAVE TO PAY, YOU SAID YOU WOULD PAY!” Twilight Zone insanity is breaking out all over.
I’m shouting at all of them “I DIDN’T ORDER THE TEA, YOU GUYS DID!!” “I ordered 2 beers and the soup. How much are the beers?!! How much is the soup?!!” The waiter tells me, so I take out a 100 RMB note (about $15) and I hand it to him. “THIS IS WHAT I’M PAYING!!” I start walking back over to the table to get my bag, when one of the girls grabs my arm. My adrenaline is rushing like crazy. That’s when I went full-on Carl Lewis. (kids… Carl Lewis was a track star)
Run, Forrest, Ruuun!
That’s right, I ran. I grabbed my bag, broke away from the girl, and started running full sprint down the alley! I could hear her chasing after me. I could see people standing off to the side of the alley, staring at me as I ran. Are they in on it too? Is someone about to jump out and try to tackle me??? I’m still running. I can still hear her behind me, but she’s sounding further and further away. I get out to the main street, not many cars around, still running. I see a hotel down the street, I head towards it.
I turn back and don’t see her, I run straight into the hotel lobby. I’m hunched over, hyperventilating, trying to catch my breath. I pace back and forth for a few moments. Do I stay and talk to the hotel staff? Do I keep running?? What the hell just happened???!!!
I head back outside, and manage to flag down a cab. After a few minutes of trying to get him to understand where I was staying, the 75-year-old cab driver takes me to my hotel… AND THEN HE SCAMS ME TOO!!! Oh, but I’ll save that story for another post… “How Beijing is Super Shady, a Guide to Spotting Counterfeit Chinese Currency in a Dark Cab”
Why These Scams are Popular
When someone reaches into your pocket and steals your waller, that’s an obvious crime. You can go to the police with that. If they catch the person, they’re getting in a lot of trouble. With the Beijing Tea Scam, and other similar scams, it’s a little different. Things are not so cut and dry. With scams, you get tricked, and although that’s a bad thing, it’s not like being mugged. It’s more of a grey area, and harder to prove wrongdoing. You’re a little bit at fault too. They can say it was your fault for not looking at the menu etc. With scams, the scammers have a way to explain their side of the story to the police.
How to Avoid Getting Scammed
From what I’ve read, this scam exists in many forms, but the general setup remains the same. A friendly stranger gains your trust, sometimes over the course of a couple days, but it’s all a setup. How sad, you thought you made a friend. 🙁 Instead of tea, it could involve wine, food, or admission to a play. Whatever it is, always check the price first, even if you’re worried it makes you look cheap! Most importantly, be wary of anyone who approaches you when traveling, especially in touristy areas. Just stay smart, stay alert, and you should be fine.