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The List: Avoiding Scams in Shanghai
Some clever rats want to come between you and your money. Here's some common scams to avoid in Shanghai and around China. It's a SMSH PSA.
By Apr 9, 2014 SmSh
If you act civilized and harmonious during your time in Shanghai, you probably won't get beat up or murdered, though you may lose an iPhone or two at the club or on the street if you don't zip those pockets. You should also watch out for devious souls who want to come between you and your money. They're called pianzi, and they're lurking…

Here are 10 cons to watch out for in Shanghai.

1) That Train Ticket Holler

Someone walks up to you on the street and says, "I lost my wallet and I need to take a train back to e.g. Nanjing, can you please give me some money to buy a train ticket?" They're wearing a suit, so they must be a professional.

Yes, a professional pianzi. Chinese people care way too much about face to ask randoms for money, especially foreigners. They would definitely call their family or friend to get help if they really lost their wallet. These pianzi are simply working a job. Note: this also applies to 99% of the "monks" who ask for donations on popular tourist streets.

2) Tea Party With Fake Students/That Lady Massage Holler/The KTV Setup

"Hi, we are students from a local university. Welcome to China! Would you like to come experience our local culture and see a real Chinese tea ceremony or check out some of our Chinese calligraphy?"

Bulllllllshit. Chinese students aren't hanging out on Nanjing Lu talking to random foreigners in the middle of the day. They're probably at school, or playing games on their phone, or sleeping. These pianzi will take you to a random apartment or business to see a tea ceremony where you'll get a steep bill for some worthless tea. It's your word against theirs and the police probably won't help.

Never order food or drinks without seeing the menu first. This also goes for lady massages, or random girls who walk up and invite you to KTV. You might end up with a 10,000rmb bill and two Bulldog-looking brothers from Shandong ready to rearrange your face. As a rule, the shadier you get, the shadier the consequences can be, like the gentleman in this video experienced. If you really want a massage, there's plenty of legit places with price lists in plain view. Nanjing Lu is not a good place to get a massage.

3) Cheap Phones For Sale On The Corner - Don't Do It!

"Hey, friend! iPhone – 600 kuai." You're walking down the street and some dude or auntie flashes a phone at you. It looks nice because it's real, and the price sounds right. It must be stolen, right? So you examine the phone. The touchscreen works and everything. You agree on a ridiculously low price, and then at some point the pianzi switches this phone with a decoy phone. Sometimes they'll fool you by saying "oh I need to take the SIM card out," then they'll power down the phone. After you pay and you try to turn on the phone, you realize that shit is fake and the pianzi is already blocks away with your cash. Don't buy phones on the street.

4) The Apartment Swindle - No Key, No Money

"Oh wow this apartment looks really nice, better act fast or someone else will get this room!" Unfortunately the landlord isn't in Shanghai at the moment but he's so nice that you can just put a deposit in his account and he'll mail you the key! Swell.

[A week later] Oh shit where's the key? Watch out for this. Always check out apartments in person or have a friend help you, and don't give any money until you get the contract and the keys. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Actually we have a whole guide to avoiding apartment rental scams right here.

5) Landlord's New Phone Number and New Bank Account

"Hmmm..the landlord changed her phone number, and she's got a new bank account too! Wonder what happened?" Ignore any messages from people claiming to be your landlord. If your landlord really wants to find you, they'll come to the house or send some clown from the real estate company. The pianzi tend to send these messages out right around the time your rent is due. Who knows how they know this. They might have stolen your receipt from the cash machine last time you paid rent. Pianzi are clever…

6) The Ol' Flat Tire Swindle

You're riding your bike around the Yongkang when all the sudden you get a flat tire. Wtf? Suddenly an uncle comes up ready to help you out. Wow, turns out there are good souls in this world after all! Conveniently enough, this uncle can fix your bike tire right here, right now, for just 100rmb.

Actually this uncle is working together with whomever popped your damn tire. It's a setup, and now this good Samaritan wants to charge you three or four times the normal price of a replacement tire. This is tough if there are no police around. If you speak Chinese and there happens to be a cop nearby, you might do well to flag them over. If not, refuse to pay anymore than 25–30rmb for the new tire. Apparently this has happened to many foreigners in Shanghai.

7) Taxi Scams and Black-Hearted Cabbies

So you get in the cab and the driver doesn't respond when you tell him your destination. Maybe it's silent affirmation. Yo, siji? Ni milu le ma? Siji is lost, and you've got to get to that happy hour before it's over and those steak sandwiches are gone, cause then you're gonna have to eat the sub-of-the-day, and fuck that.

So you get mad and decide to switch to another cab. This driver is dumb, and he's totally lost, right? You step out of the cab and the driver steps on the gas, gone with your bag in the trunk. This has happened to several people we know. Always get the receipt, and always get your bags before you pay the driver. If you're traveling with a friend, have someone stay in the car until you get your bags from the trunk.

A note on the hei che, or "black taxis." Don't take them unless you really know what you're doing, and even then you're still taking a risk. Those guys don't have any insurance and they're all operating illegally. Sometimes the drivers will agree on a price and then double it when you get to the destination, or say that's the price per person if you're traveling in a group. These guys can get sketch and they might pull out a knife on you. Best to stick with legit taxis and drivers, who won't ever stand out on the street or in the train station or airport yelling prices at you.

8) I Can See Your Future And You're About To Lose Some Money

You're walking by the temple and a wrinkly old woman with a glass eye says to you in Chinese, "I can see your future in your face…let me tell you more. A lot is going to change in the next year, and your son is going to die. I can help you, but it will cost money…"

Ok now we're delving into deeper levels of pianju…the occult; that mystic shit. There's all kinds of fortune teller pianzi out there ready prey on your superstition and get your rmb. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa offered to sell Homer a rock that protects him from tigers? Just stay away from strange people that try to talk to you outside of temples.

9) Fake Kidnappings, Hospital Stays, and Other Phone Scams

"Your son or daughter is in the hospital, you need to send me money now," or "I've taken your son/daughter hostage. Pay me or I'll kill them." These people are like the evil cousins of telemarketers. They won't let you get off the phone, and they'll fool you into thinking your loved one really is in grave danger. These pianzi have done their research – they know a lot about you and your family. They probably know the address of your child's school. These scams happen all the time in China, though probably not so often to foreigners. If you ever get a phone call like this, hang up and call the police by dialing 110.

10) The "Shareholder" Scam

This one is a relative newcomer to Shanghai, with first sightings dating back to some time in 2009. Fortunately, the victims of this scam have largely been people of newfound wealth. It works like this: A few pianzi open a nightclub in a fashionable neighborhood. They decorate the place with the aesthetic sensibilities of a 15-year-old boy and maybe tack an overrated restaurant onto the place. If those two hallmarks don't set off any red flags, keep a vigilant eye out for a music program that involves an endless roster of hackish, overhyped "international" DJs.

The pianzi then work to exploit the over-inflated sense of self worth and entitlement that runs rampant among Shanghai's newly moneyed class. They approach an unsuspecting mark with an "investment opportunity" in the club. The mark pays the prescribed amount, which entitles him to a couple of bottles of champagne a year or something as well as a regular, and most likely unrealistically high, return on the investment. What the mark doesn't realize, however, is that if there are any profits in the club, they're probably being pocketed by the pianzi. They're probably pocketing most of the investment money, too. That so called "return" on the investment is actually just a percentage of cash coming in from the next rube that they fool into making an investment.

Eventually, the pool of new investors dries out. The partners are no longer able to rob Peter to pay Paul. The whole house of cards collapses and the pianzis skip town with a boatload of cash.


Of course, the most famous Shanghai scam of recent years is 2009's Le Daft Punk Scam. Remember that one? Allegedly Interpol caught those guys on a beach somewhere. There's lots more scams out there in China, so if you know of any others, please leave them in the comments along with your stories. Play it safe.


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  • 5 years ago buckwurst

    Fake 100 RMB Taxi scam. You give the driver 100 RMB, but he gives it back to you saying it's fake and asks for another one. You give him another one and he gives you your change... What he actually did was take your first real 100 RMB and swap it for a fake one. Get around this by being aware, also maybe fold the corner of the bill and run it through your fingers when giving it to him or try to pay with small bills if you think the driver's sketchy. They won't try it unless they think you're a clueless laowai, so try not to look like one.

  • 5 years ago urgent

    The live seafood tank restaurant scam! You ask how much does this crab or fish weigh and what's the price? (no, it's too much, bu yao, how about this one?) Then you get shown to a private dining room, with everything you pointed at sent cooked to your table with the bill. Or, they pretend to mis-understand your Chinese and kill the fish before you can say no. I've seen it happen a few times in Shanghai, but Sanya is the worst.

  • 5 years ago theweatherman

    My colleague got a taxi at Hongqiao airport - first time in China, flying up from Hong Kong. Got in what was a seemingly legit taxi in the taxi queue at the airport, put his suitcase and bag in the trunk. And off he went en route to his downtown hotel.

    After about 15 minutes, the driver got a phone call, and then went all like 'sorry sorry sorry, i go, i go, no pay, no pay, no problem.' and headed off the next sliproad and stopped the taxi at the side of the road got out and told him to get out of the taxi. He promptly whipped open the trunk and gave him his suitcase and bag. Jumped back in the taxi and road away.

    Bemused, he stood by the side of the road and figured I'd get another taxi - 'at least he didn't charge me, must have been a family emergency or something.' Then, hang on. about 200 meters up the road he saw his taxi pull over, the driver got out, opened the trunk and a small guy jumped out of the trunk, got in the passenger seat and off they went...

    'Erm, weird' he thought. At this point he looked at his bag and thought, 'hmm, that be a bit light'. Looked inside and his laptop, passport and ipad were no where to be seen. Doh. The small guy had been hiding in the trunk under the usual taxi trunk junk all the way. Clearly rifled through his bags, got hold of some swag and then called the driver to stop the car.

    My colleague never did come back to Shanghai.

    Not that this is necessarily a Shanghai scam, could of happened anywhere. But hey, here you go!

  • 5 years ago urgent

    blows my mind that people put their laptops in the trunk.

  • 5 years ago handoogies

    "Its OK you cumma inside, I on the pill"

  • 5 years ago ryry

    Nearly the same as the small scale scam buckwurst mentioned - they covertly swap the higher value note(100/50) for one of smaller value, try to fob you off by saying it's the one you gave them. Tryin' ta take advantage of drunk laowais and your broken light are you? Cheeky monkeys...

  • 5 years ago Burn

    I never got scammed, though they tried, but I'm always careful or plain paranoid. What I don't get is how stupid most foreigners (especially westerners) are to scams. I know they're not really stupid, but it's as if they just stop thinking (or put too much trust in to human decency). As if they have "please scam me" or "gullible" written on their forehead.

  • 4 years ago natalieb

    Jiaotong Card switch in the taxi is pretty common. The driver drops your card and then gives you a new one with no money on it. I put stickers on my card so I can tell its mine after this happened to some friends.

  • 4 years ago MikeH84

    Another scam: when two girls walk up to you claiming that they are really hungry (usually also claiming to be students) and would you like to give them some help? Often I point out to them there's usually loads of restaurants around so what do they need my help for? :P

    Nanjing man is a classic - he walked away from me the last time it happened when I told him he had the worst luck in the world when every time he comes to town he seems to lose his wallet. Or go to the police station.

  • 4 years ago Wasabichez

    Expats try and run a higher valuation for the "Shareholder Scam" It's pretty funny how they upsell Shanghai to other foreigners, especially when they know someone has been in SHA for quite awhile.

  • 5 months ago DCCDDDCC Unverified User

    Today I got scammed in a bar at a side street at Nanjing East Road - a parallel street behind the KFC. It has a read letter sign and just reads "bar". A girl I met earlier in a casual conversation who speaks some English brought me there after suggesting to go for drinks. I had to pay a horrific bill despite negotiating my way out to a lower one ... but still a horrific bill. As a former licensed private detective and about 25 years of work experience it is a shame that I fell into that trap but I got no darn experience here in China. Now I plan my revenge. One of my best buddies is ABC and fluent in Mandarin. He already helped me to get the necessary details. I am just here for a 2 week vacation but during the day I will find a few hours to mess their lives up. My goal is to to either get em caught by police, get them divorced with their spouses (if they have any) by a simple trap or to impose psychological warfare by sending pictures of random dead bodies downloaded from the darknet to scare the shit out of their now rather uncomfortable lives. I lost my detective license because I got felony charge some time back home and now I found some victims that will pay the price of scamming innocent tourists.

  • 5 months ago US traveller Unverified User

    I got scammed yesterday on nanjing road. similar to some other people. A girl approached me on the bund and got into conversation. Then walked to nanjing road and she quite smartly took me to a restaurant on a side street. She cleverly ordered wine in chinese. The glasses kept on coming. then her friend came by and started having whisky shots. it was all a set up and i got duped. they were trying to get me drunk and also order as many drinks as possible. I also think their drinks are little watered down so dont get drunk and drinks keep on coming. Also I think the girls spit the drink back into the coke can they order so they dont get drunk. the restaurant is in on it. After a while i realized that everyone in that restaurant was a tourist with a local chinese girl. Bill was crazy high and i was so depressed. Well learnt my lesson.

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