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.