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Here Are 10 Common Scams to Avoid in Shanghai

Ten common scams to avoid in Shanghai and around China. It's a SmSh PSA, updated for 2020.
By May 25, 2020 Community
If you act civilized and harmonious during your time in Shanghai, you'll probably be fine, 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, updated for 2020.

Online Scams. All of Them

The internet has come a long way since 2014, when this article was first published, and scammers, fraudsters, grifters and wise guys have ever been on the cutting edge of technology. There is a bewildering, mind-boggling number of ways that you can get scammed online, but the one we're hearing of most often seems to be some variation of the Tea Party, except instead of coming up to you on the street, they'll match you on dating apps like Tinder, Tantan and others. You'll set up a date, and being the considerate person you are, allow them to pick a time and a place.

Same principles apply: don't order anything unless you see a menu first. Times are tough, money is tight, and there's nothing wrong with demonstrating you're fiscally responsible on a first date.

That's just one way that the old scams are remade for the cyber age. Lots of decent lists on the internet, such as this one on the Canadian Trade Commissioner's website. Some basic principles for good cybersecurity: verify a person's identity, ideally with a phone or video call or a personal meeting, before sending them money or sensitive information. Be suspicious of anyone asking you to do something urgently, especially over WeChat or other messaging apps. Don't add people you don't know on WeChat who have no Moments available to you. As always, operate under the assumption of "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

The Train Ticket One

Someone walks up to you on the street and says, "I lost my wallet and I need to take a train back to 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 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.

Tea Party with Fake Students/The Lady Massage Game/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. If you really want a massage, there's plenty of legit places with price lists in plain view. Nanjing Dong Lu is not really a good place to get a massage.

Cheap Phones for Sale on the Corner

"Hey, friend! iPhone – 600 kuai." You're walking down the street or in the airport, and someone 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 it's fake and the pianzi is already gone with your cash. Don't buy phones on the street or at the airport off a random person.

The Apartment Swindle

"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.

Housing scams may be the most common in Shanghai, and we know a thing or two about them. In fact, here's a whole article about avoiding them and here's one relating stories of people who got scammed.

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 someone 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. Pianzi are clever…

The Ol' Flat Tire Swindle

You're riding your bike around when all of 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, he can fix your bike tire right here, right now, for just 100rmb.

Actually this uncle is working together with whomever popped your 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.

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. The driver is lost, and you've got to get to Found 158 before Taco Tuesday ends!

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. 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. Plus, with Didi these days, why would you chance it?

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 scams…the occult. 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.

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.



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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • urgent

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

  • handoogies

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

  • 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...

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 2 years 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.

  • 2 years 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.

  • 2 years ago hydboy1818 Unverified User

    The SCAM associated with Nanjing Road Shanghai still exists and is a real threat…

    I visited China Shanghai in April 2019. All was good till I visited the Bund Nanjing Road and other areas outside of Pudong ..

    I was walking through Nanjing Road and then a lady comes and tells me there is BJ HJ and FACK all possible in Shanghai , only 150 RMB and so on ..
    I move on ignoring her and then another guy approaches and I ignore him too. All in the busy NANJING road streets near the ZARA shop and when so much crows is all around you .
    It is not some sleazy street but right bang on Nanjing Road.

    Third time a very pretty lady approaches and this I give in and ask for details.
    She convinces me its nearby and walkable and safe and everything for 1 hour is only 150 RMB ..
    She give me special rate of 150 RMS otherwise usually its 250 RMB etc ..

    After few minutes of her cajoling and pulling me to go along with her , I give in ..
    And that was indeed a sad decision ..

    We walked for 15 minutes and reached Beijing road
    There few meters away I could see a police station so I thought everything should be safe .. but I was wrong ☹
    And then we entered a Lower Ground apartment and once the door was closed, there was no body except few of the underground hotel staff only.

    I was taken into a room and they collected 150 RMB first.
    Then they presented 2 girls in sexy outfits and asked me to select one. I selected 1.
    Then everyone left and this girl gave me a BJ actually ..

    I was then ready to leave but another lady comes and demands 200 RMB saying that is the room fees. I give her 200 RMB.

    Next another guy comes and shows me a rate card or menu card saying 6000 RMB . This is where I started to feel the shock of a BJ.
    Now I realized it’s a SCAM in Shanghai that I had read about but chose to ignore !

    I pleaded with them I had no money, They forcefully took out my Credit Card and swiped ..
    And in neighboring room I heard somebody getting beaten up and crying ☹ I was really scared for my life ..

    After he took my 6000 RMB , then threw me out of the place ,

    I just rushed out of the place feeling like a fool that I got scammed even after reading many warning stories about the same ☹

  • 1 year ago Ripped off Kiwi Unverified User

    October 2019:
    I arrived at Pudong Airport on a Tuesday evening, first time in China. While boarding the subway metro I slipped on a wet floor at the baggage security check, impaled my left eye on my suitcase wheel, got a black eye. Off to a bad start already.
    I finally arrived in the city centre Nanjing pedestrian road around 10pm. As soon as I get out of the train station a woman approaches me and asks if I would like to get beer. I say no, I need to check in to my hostel, then maybe get some dinner. So she accompanies me to get food after I check in and shows me a place to eat noodles. All of a sudden another girl shows up and they start ordering lots of wine which I later discover is extremely overpriced wine. The wine actually retails at about $10-30 per bottle, but they are charging about $40-50 per glass. Eventually I'm handed a bill of 2248 ¥ including the girls' food. I feel super ripped off and taken advantage of. So I leave and gap the girls. Feeling very angsty, I return to the bar at about midnight to inquire into their business model and pricing, and also to get a receipt. I'm given a free beer and cigarette. After some discussion with the waitress, another girl shows up. I don't realise she is a hooker and initially assume that she also works there. Eventually I'm invited to a karaoke bar. Due to moderate inebriation, first night in Shanghai, and wanting to get to know the place more, my defences are down and I am somewhat open to the suggestion. So we go to a karaoke bar, and again another girl joins us. Eventually I am only with the new girl. She keeps ordering drink after drink after drink in rapid succession. 2 hours later my wits are gone and I am charged to my credit card for a total of 7600¥.
    I wake up at midday feeling very hungover and stink.
    I return to the karaoke bar and after some discussion the manager refunds me 2000¥.
    The next day I return to the first restaurant to ask for a refund. The male manager loses his temper at me and challenges me to go to the police. So I go to the police. The police respond very nonchalantly to my issue as if it is nothing new and this has happened numerous times before (of course it has!), but they say they can help. After about an hour of waiting a couple of officers are available to help. We jump in a cop car and head back to the restaurant. The male manager is gone and only the waitress is there. I receive a refund of 2000¥, so my total charge for that restaurant is only 248¥ (still very expensive for what could have been decent meal at a usual restaurant, but at least I got most of the money back).
    Afterwards I walk back to the karaoke bar to take photos of the street name and shop front. The manager sees me and asks what I'm doing there. I say I think I was still charged way to much and I was thinking of going to the police station in the vicinity to ask for help.
    Eventually we negotiate and he refunds me an additional 2800¥. He tells me he never wants to see me again.
    Later in the day after all, around midnight I decide to head to the local police station that has jurisdiction over the area of the karaoke bar. A police officer accompanies me back to the shop. After a lot of hot debating and yelling and lost temper from the manager and his boss, I negotiate an additional 1000¥ refund. They tell me they have made a loss from me. They again express they never want to see me ever again, and if I did return the waiting manager will beat me up. The waiting manager asks me if I think they are powerless. I say I think you are very powerful. But I am unphased and unthreatened by all of the tempers I have experienced that day. I am bigger than them all and I am a trained martial artist. I know Kung Fu (Muay Thai specialisation).
    So in total I was refunded 7800¥ for a total scam bill of 9848¥ from my first night in Shanghai. I still think the 1800¥ balance that I payed the karaoke club was a bit overpriced for the service, but it is hard to tell. At least I got most of my money back, and it will only take about a week of work to make up the losses that I was taken advantage of. China's version of top down instant "police", where the police simply lean and the scammers to give a certain refund is very interesting to witness.
    They next morning I caught a private Didi taxi to hongqiao railway station to catch an 8am speed train to Guangzhou, just in case there is a mafia / triad ring coordinating all the street whores and scam bars in Shanghai aimed at ripping off laowai foreigners. I don't want to risk subsequent altercations from being present in the area. I am actually on the speed train as I write this.
    I am suspicious that pairs of girls walking Nanjing rd or along the bund are trying to capture me in their "selfies" to send on wechat to their network of scammers in order to set up a heist later on. I got the impression from the karaoke bar tender that he knew where and what I had been doing during the day - they were watching.
    I am sometimes told by people in Asia that I stand out quite a lot in a crowd as a partially European foreigner

  • 1 year ago john doe 33 Unverified User

    A little scared by what had happened to me I decided to do a foot massage in a place open to the public in Niagnjian street, after my massage I decided to return to my hotel, at this moment I was approached by another woman who insistently told me that she could take me to a massage site with a happy ending that would cost much less than what I paid for my foot massage, obviously you would think that I was stupid to do this after what happened to me and now that I think about it I was quite stupid, Normally I don't usually look for prostitution but somehow this day I had a high libido and I got carried away with my instincts in violation of all rational conservation rules. After insisting for more than three streets on the good that the service would be, I decided to go with her in a taxi to the place, after about 10 minutes we arrived at an apartment building where we went up to the 9 floor, there was an open apartment with a woman attending and several girls, after choosing the massage girl, we entered one of the rooms, and the person who received me charged me the service money in advance, after finishing with the girl two men enter the room and They keep me, they call their boss who tells me that prostitution is illegal in China and that I have to pay 5000 dollars for not being reported to the police, they take away my credit cards, thugs enter and leave the room and after a tense negotiation I get that the amount is only 3000 dollars, after they intimidated me and threatened me with a beating or maybe death, they accompany me outside and give 100 rmb to a taxi driver who takes me to the hotel, end of the story estuary. Shanghai 2 vs I 1. For letting myself be carried away by my low instincts I lost 3,000 dollars, I deserve it, but I want this to be read and not let your brain be governed by your instincts, I consider myself an intelligent person, I had never been robbed in my almost 50 years of life , but there is always a first time. oh and do not think that your credit cards will return the money, I claim without success, since I said it was under threat, but they force you to put your pin number and sign (I also made a signature that was not mine) But none of that was worth it. I wish you luck on your next trip.

  • 12 months ago Tantan (chinese tinder equivalen Unverified User

    Few days ago i use Tantan, a chinese online dating app (to be clear its not my first time using it, i met few girls before without any complain). Simple story i got a match with this girl, we chat and she tell me want to meet up. I ask her wechat and try to video call her to make sure its not a fake account, she refuse to answer my video call but then she initiate to voice call me. Good enough i think. Then she give me some address for meetups tonight :

    Its somewhere around shandong middle road and hankou road (山东中路 汉口路)

    Its 8pm and we met at that specific location, its bit quiet there but few restaurants were open, we walk a bit and she ask me if i want to grab some food and let me choose which restaurant i’d like. Hearing that makes me build up a little bit trust in her and lower my guard down so i let her choose what she like and she ask me to go to the japanese restaurant inside the building infront of us.

    It was at the 6th floor, we re the only customer there and they let us take a private room. We order food and she order sake. Her english is almost perfect so its not that hard to getting close with her. Everything was fun, but then sake is keep coming and when the billed is arrived, it show 5850rmb! Fuck, I just realized that i being scammed! Luckily i put my saving at different bank account. So i use to transfer some money to wechat or alipay just for my daily basis. But still, i lost almost 2000rmb that night after i refuse to pay all and keep saying that thats the only money i have. After long debate that girl pay the rest. We split up right after that with that girl act like she is very sad because losing lot of money tonight.

    So today i tried again tantan and found out it had lot of similar account like the one who scammed me before :

    It has only one picture, less profile, and location in huangpu.

    So after had a match, i manage to chat 2 girls in order to found out more about their game. One is too obvious, she said shes alone at her house and ask me to come (too good to be true), the other one were chat normal but they both give me a similar address with girl who scammed me before :

    around shandong middle road and hankou road (山东中路 汉口路)!

    One girl said that there is a lot of good restaurant there and the other one even give me picture of a restaurant there which is the one where my last scammed girl said to me that i can choose the one i like!! Fuck!

    So i might come out with conclusion that all restaurant around that area might be their scamming places. Just avoid if u found similar case like this. Beware!

  • 10 months ago beintheknow Unverified User

    Here's a small thing people fall for every day out of ignorance of Didi policies - When you are getting a Didi at the train station or airport you have no responsibility to pay the driver's parking fee. They can get inside the parking garage once for free to pick up passengers, and many of them enter again for one reason or another. Typically, the driver will ask you to pay after you've already gotten in the car, so either tell them beforehand that you will not be paying their parking fee, or flat out deny them if they ask nearby your destination!

  • 10 months ago Damage Sponge Unverified User

    Drink tickets at clubs

    5 drinks for 100 rambos, thought to myself that's not to bad, Ill stick to beers to play it safe.

    Down my first beers and its a little light on the palette

    The god damn beer is 1.1% no name beer Ive never seen before or again thank god... Come on at lest give me some Snow or Qingdao at a push.

    lesson learnt, check what the drink deal gets you on the menu before getting the tickets.

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