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The Beijing Tea Scam (and a few others)


roddy
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  • 3 months later...
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This is how it played out for me in December: I'd be somewhere mega-touristy like Wangfujing or Tian'anmen Square/the Forbidden City, and a complete stranger would ask me (always in fluent English) what my name was, where I was from, or just whether I'd like some tea/coffee or to see some art.

In the few days I spent in Beijing, it happened dozens of times. Only one of them touched me (she lightly grabbed my arm), but the rest either asked me nicely or just yelled their spiel at me as I walked away.

The way I dealt with all of them was to never break my stride or composure, and either (a) ignore them completely or (b) explicitly say '不要' to the pushier ones, just once, to indicate that I knew what their game was. It worked, and it occasionally frustrated them: one called me 'stupid' and stomped off; another chased me down the street on a push bike screaming 'let's get some coffee!!' at the top of her voice. All of them gave up within 20 seconds.

To those of you who respond with a friendly 'no thank you' or similar: even that level of engagement can be enough for them to persist. If you give them nothing, they have far more trouble getting their hooks into you. If you're worried that you're snubbing a nice local who simply wants to chat, wait a few seconds—the dishonest ones will quickly pronounce the nature of their scam without prompting.

Of course, I found nearly everyone else in Beijing to be thoroughly honest. As with so many countries and cities, don't let the very tiny contingent of rotten eggs spoil your positive interactions with everyone else.

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To those of you who respond with a friendly 'no thank you' or similar: even that level of engagement can be enough for them to persist. If you give them nothing, they have far more trouble getting their hooks into you.

My experience is mostly the opposite. If I just say 謝謝,不用了 with a smile, especially the salespeople usually turn away.

 

One instance I remember: sitting in a restaurant in Taipei with a bunch of people when a young woman stopped by our table to beg (or was it to sell something useless, don't remember). She went into her spiel, at first we ignored her, she just continued to talk. I felt bad about this, so turned around to look at her and politely said No thank you. She stopped immediately and walked to the next table. Win-win-win: she was acknowledged as a person, we were no longer hassled, and she could stop wasting her time on a table that wasn't buying anything.

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  • 2 weeks later...

That's a great outcome, but in Beijing I found the behaviour and persistence of beggars to be quite different from that of tea scammers. I think it's pretty poor form to be disdainful towards people who are clearly destitute, but nicely dressed tea scammers know fully well that they're ripping people off (and none I saw looked like beggars anyway).

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  • 2 months later...
  • 9 months later...

 

What is the point of a police state without law and order?

I don't see how a friendly invitation to drink tea is, nor should be, illegal.

 

One time I went along with a couple of girls well aware of what was going on and nothing illegal happened. In contrary, I was even shown a menu with quite excessive prices before ordering. At first I even made a remark, too expensive let's go somewhere else and was answered that it was no more expensive then  Starbucks. I ordered 3 tea's, the girls started ordering all kind of other things, coffee, melon seeds etc. I bailed out fairly soon after as I felt it might become too big to handle if I stayed much longer. I was presented with a big bill, told them I only ordered the tea and as such I was only willing to pay for that. Paid the tea and just left. Of course other girls/places may deal with it in a different way and also I was well aware of what was going on so had choosen a place close to the exit and was firm and fairly quick in my dealings. If you're unwitting and are surprised about the bill, far from the exit, first start a big discussion and are not firm in what the solution is things may end up quite different. Specially if they've a real big bill of thousends of yuan instead of one from just a few hunderd yuan.

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If you're unwitting and are surprised about the bill, far from the exit, first start a big discussion and are not firm in what the solution is things may end up quite different. Specially if they've a real big bill of thousends of yuan instead of one from just a few hunderd yuan.

Yeah, and if someone wants to mug you, you can also run away or react quickly because of your years of practicing martial arts, or if someone breaks into your home you can shoot them. But just because it's possible to get away, doesn't mean this stuff is legal. If those girls just happened to enjoy your company and just happened to like expensive tea, it's one thing, but this is clearly an intentional scam. The fact that some of the victims manage to get off lightly doesn't make it less of a crime.

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I think it's a scam and I don't like this scam.  I've been invited in for the art scam, and felt the high pressure sales, but I've worked in sales before and so I walked out with my name written in Chinese for free and nothing else.  

 

I wish they would police it somehow because poor tourists get a poor impression of China.  

But I struggle to think of how, because what law is being broken?  The thing about confidence tricksters is that what they do is rarely illegal.

 

If you ask for the prices, I think you will be told.  If you only pay for what you order, at the price you accept, what's the problem?

 

If you don't ask for the prices, how is this different to showing up to a fancy restaurant or nightclub and ordering a bottle of champagne without looking at the prices?  

If you take a date out and he/she takes advantage of you and orders the lobster, and the bill comes and they say they have no money, has a law been broken?  

If you make friends with a Chinese person and go KTV and order lots of drinks and at the end of the night you don't have any money and they drive you to an ATM and push you to withdraw the money you owe them -- are they wrong to do so?  Should they let you off with "oh they didn't know it would be 2000RMB ".  Or "Oh his friend should have told him"?  

If we change KTV for Nightclub or Teahouse is it any different? 

 

I think the only viable solution would simply be to put up signs in the area -- warning tourists that "please check the prices before ordering".

 

However in the tourist areas, there are other scams that are worse and more illegal.  At the Beijing "snack street" the vendors use the Chinese only menu to sell cheap goods at expensive prices by selling one thing and pointing at another price (or packing half empty boxes of food).

 

Around the north of the forbidden city, taxis are forbidden (no idea why), but illegal taxi drivers work that area ripping off tourists every day (a tour guide tells me they pay the authorities for this privilege, i don't know).   A tuktuk driver took a friend of a friend down a back alley and surrounded him with men and bullied him until he emptied his wallet.  

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But just because it's possible to get away, doesn't mean this stuff is legal.

What part of the deal is illegal? The invitation is legal. Setting high prices and being transparent about it is legal. If presented with a correct (according to the menu) high bill there is no legal reason not to pay. If you don't want to pay a correct bill that is illegal and obviously that may result in an escalation with all kinds of threats/violence. This may be illegal, but is caused by your illegal actions.

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Perhaps this is best answered by a lawyer, which I am not.

 

If I had to take a shot at it, I'd say that it could well be illegal to order things you have no intention of paying for: the scammers order expensive things but don't want to pay for them. It's also illegal to force someone to pay for things they didn't buy or didn't want: the scammers and/or the restaurant pressure the victim to pay for expensive things the scammers ordered.

 

A sale is usually a simple contract. I offer product X for price Y, and if you tell me you want product X for price Y, we have a deal. I can then not suddenly increase the price; if you pay me Y I cannot withhold X unless I give you back Y; and if I give you X you then have to pay Y or give me back X. For this to function, you don't need a lot of trust as long as you have decent law-enforcement. If you order without asking the price (for example when a 富二代 walks into a club and calls for champagne), you need more trust: the buyer needs to trust the seller to not overcharge more than the buyer expects, and the seller needs to trust the buyer to agree to the price the seller sets. If a tea house offers a menu without prices to unwitting tourists, those rules of trust are broken: the tourist can't trust the tea house (the prices might be very high), and the tea house can't trust the tourist (the tourist might not have enough money). So bona fide tea houses are smart enough not to do this.

 

If you go on a date and your date orders an entree a lobster and three desserts, and then expects you to pay, it's pretty similar to the tea scam actually. And it works for similar reasons: the victim is a bit overwhelmed, reluctant to make a scene, and pays up.

 

If I go to a KTV with Chinese friends and I order a lot of drinks on their tab without checking the price, I'd better be prepared to pay up. If not, I shouldn't be ordering. In the tea scam stories, it's usually the scammers who do the ordering, while expecting the victim to pay. That's different. If I go to KTV with friends and they are ordering a lot of drinks while I don't because I don't have that much money, they shouldn't expect me to pay for their drinks. That's just reasonable. (I might offer to anyway, but that's entirely up to me.)

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But just because it's possible to get away, doesn't mean this stuff is legal.

 

 Perhaps this is best answered by a lawyer, which I am not.

Maybe a lawyer can find something illegal in many cases, I think if the scam is performed correctly nothing illegal happens. It's more like walking up to someone and demand money. It's up to you to give it or to deny it. I heard people claiming to be robbed and describing the incident it was no more then a guy walking up to them and asking for money with a tone of voice that made them feel threatened.

 

Sure it can be very unpleasant you may feel threatened it may feel extremely unfair and unethical, but just that doesn't make it illegal. Just as the fact that you may get away from a robbery doesn't make the robbery legal, or a by all involved parties perfectly agreed on transaction may be illegal.

 

At least from a western perspective the illegal part may be the lack of transparency about the commissions paid. I doubt however China has transparency laws that cover this and if they have it's extremely hard to prove. A way around it might be to pay 'regular wages' making it hardly different from putting a couple of people in front of the tea house inviting people in.

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I'm pretty sure this would be illegal in the UK. The prices charged are unreasonable, that is, you would not reasonably expect a customer to pay them if shown the prices in advance. I think that's illegal. Otherwise it would be legal for a restaurant to charge you $50,000 for a coffee at the end of your meal -- I mean, people rarely check to see how much a coffee costs if it's after a full sit-down meal.

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I'm pretty sure this would be illegal in the UK. The prices charged are unreasonable, that is, you would not reasonably expect a customer to pay them if shown the prices in advance.

How do you define unreasonable? I'm pretty sure you can find legit places with far higher prices. Sure $50k for a coffee after a $10 dollar meal is unreasonable. But how about a 10$ coffee after a 300$ meal?

 

As I mentioned I was shown the menu with prices. Well, actually I'm not sure any more or the menu was actively given or the menu was on the table and I took it to have a look. The information was surely freely and easy available. Prices were upmarket, the girls said same as starbucks, don't know or this was true, but at the time I felt it was believable. Let's for argument sake say it was double that of Starbucks in a place with a look and feel that was clearly not low budget but also not extremely up market in the Wangfujing area so not the cheapest area. Should that really be considered unreasonable prices?

 

If I'm unwittingly 'dragged in' and be presented with a huge bill when I want to leave it surely feels unreasonable. If I just walked in, saw a 'nice traditional' tea house with a fair number of foreigners I would probably think nothing of it and consider it just an upmarket expat/tourist hangout.

 

The way I experienced it the only unreasonable thing was that after I ordered the tea's within no time the girls started ordering seeds and coffee and basically barraged the waiter with questions/orders I did not understand.

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Reasonable within the context of the place. But in your case the prices seem okay in the context of a tourist rip-off joint; as you say the unreasonable element for you was ordering done by the girls and the pressure -- which you avoided -- to pay for their orders. However plenty of other examples given talk about ridiculously high prices and like I say I have a hunch that that would actually be illegal in some countries.

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However plenty of other examples given talk about ridiculously high prices

True, but I wonder what these prices really were. I mean 'ridiculously high prices' is a function of expectations. I also wonder how much is this statement based on the actual prices and how much on the grand final of the bill. Unreasonable high prices do occur, I think however that these are exceptions, but again what is reasonable is subjective. Just a simple example last month I traveled in India. The first morning in Mumbai I had a piece of cake and a couple of cokes for around 500 rupees and didn't think anything of it. After a couple of weeks traveling I was used to have diner with a drink for 100 to 200 rupees. Then I arrive in Panjim, walked into a nice restaurant and the menu showed mains in the range of 300 rupees and up. My reflex was that it was unreasonable and I walked out. Reality is that 4 to 5 euro for a dish in a nice restaurant is not that extravagant, there are many more expensive restaurants around, it was at that moment just outside my range of expectation.

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