I Was *ThisClose* to Falling for a Shanghai Tea House Scam

Have I told you about the time I almost fell for the tea house scam in Shanghai?

No?  Well, settle in because it wasn’t pretty.

cup of tea

I didn’t expect Shanghai would be the city that threw me.  Of everywhere I went in China, it’s the one that’s most conducive to tourists.  After five days of communication and logistical challenges — always met with locals eager to help by showering kindness — I let my guard down.

And there begins the problem.

I was walking through the pedestrian streets near Yu Yuan Garden.  With the pagodas lit at twilight, it was easy to forget this is one of the most touristy places in the world.

pagoda building lit at night in shanghai
Touristy streets of Shanghai, right before I was scammed

Until, of course, I met Lily.

“Can you take my picture, please?”

That’s how the whole thing started.  Lily introduced herself as a visitor from Beijing and sure enough, she was snapping photos with her phone and walking around with a city pamphlet in her hand.

In retrospect, there were so many giveaways that I totally overlooked: she was traveling alone, which is very unusual for Chinese travelers.  She was chatty and forthcoming, whereas other Chinese are usually reserved until you initiate the conversation. And that tourist pamphlet? Written in English.

But at the time, I was mesmerized by the twinkling lights around me and the very nice woman who was talking with me about everything from how cold it was in Harbin to how she couldn’t visit Europe because she couldn’t get a visa but she absolutely loves Cambodia.  And we talked about Toronto — seems like everyone in China knows someone who lives there and I was “so lucky to live so close”.

pedestrian street shanghai
Walking through Shanghai with my scammer

Lily was heading to a festival in the old Japanese colony, a celebration for the upcoming Chinese New Year.  She already knew I was meeting a friend for dinner on the Bund in an hour (which was a lie, but I’ve learned when traveling solo to always hint that I wasn’t really alone).  Did I want to just swing by the Japanese colony with her?

Of course the answer was yes.  Up to this point, we were having such a lovely conversation and I was learning more about her life in China.  We picked up the pace a little and headed into the old streets of Shanghai. After a maze of turns, we reached a nondescript doorway.  It wasn’t dark or scary, just plain.

 dark alley in shanghai old city before a tea scam
Old streets of Shanghai

“Let’s go in for a tea ceremony, for the new year.”

That’s when I started to think things were weird.  I thought we were going to a festival, but maybe something had gotten lost in translation.

I’m not proud of what happened next: I went inside.

There were two chairs sitting in front of a small table with a book on it, another chair off to the side.  On the wall, a map of China. Standing in front of the map was another Chinese woman, fully dressed in traditional garb.

The other woman started talking, with Lily translating along the way.  We talked about unlucky numbers and Chinese New Year. Then, they opened the book.  Different teas and different herbs lined the pages, each with health benefits listed.  Everything was written in both Chinese and English.

“Which of these do you think might be your favorite?”

That’s when every single alarm bell went off inside my head.  There was no Japanese colony festival. It would be just the three of us in this small room and they wanted me to pick a tea, to get the oldest Chinese scam in the book started.

It was then that I knew to get out, immediately, and so I made up another lie.  Oh my goodness! I forgot that I was meeting my friend for cocktails before dinner and if I didn’t leave right away, I’d be late.

“Lily, it was so nice to meet you,” I lied while bowing to the other woman with a “Xie xie”.  I did everything I could to maintain my composure. I’m sure they knew I had caught on, but I didn’t want to ask for trouble.

I probably should have taken a picture of the room or the perpetrators.  Instead, I left as quickly as I could, walking a block or two away with my hands on my bag. I didn’t think they were pickpockets as well, but I had already messed up once and I didn’t one to be so naive again.

I do have the GPS coordinates — the only time you’re thankful Google Maps tracks your movements and the fact that you stayed inside for 7 minutes — but the authorities didn’t seem to care.

map of old shanghai
Most tea house scams take place in Old Shanghai

How the Tea House Scam Normally Works

Most scammers lure tourists in by saying they’re students wanting to practice their English.  They mention the tea ceremony upfront, knowing it’s something that visitors are interested in. Lily changed just enough of the details that I didn’t put it together while my guard was down.

From there, they really do walk you through a tea ceremony.  They’ll teach you about all the different teas, letting you taste them each, and making you think it’s a cultural exchange.

At the end, you are presented with a very expensive bill, most reports being around 1,000 RMB (~ US $150).  Maybe even more, if you’re unlucky. Pay, or they’ll threaten to call the police, or maybe even bring out bodyguards.

1000 rmb to pay for shanghai scam

How to Get Your Money Back from a Scam

Thankfully I got out before they got deep into the Shanghai tea scam, but here’s what you should do if you find yourself scammed:

If you can, call their bluff.  These are criminals and even though they’ll threaten to call the police, they probably won’t because they don’t want to get caught.  But I totally get it: Chinese prison is a very scary idea so it can be easier to just pay and be assured you won’t have to deal with police.

If you pay, use a credit card, not cash or debit or mobile payment.  You want all the purchase protection you can get, and credit card is your best option.  If you have a card that you know has excellent customer service (like Chase or American Express, in my experience), use that one.

Sign the receipt as “UNDER DURESS” to leave a paper trail that you don’t agree to these charges.  Call the number on the back of your card to let them know about the charge ASAP.

If you can safely do so, take pictures of your location and/or the perpetrators.  But don’t push it if you think you might be putting yourself in physical harm.  You can find the GPS coordinates by going into Google Maps and selecting “Your Timeline” (unless you’ve turned off location tracking).  You can contact Chinese police by calling 110 to report the incident, although the officers I spoke to were indifferent about helping with Shanghai scams.

Prepare Yourself for Chinese Scams

The Chinese tea scam is just one of several common scams in Shanghai; the U.S. Embassy has a list of common Chinese scams although the details might not play out exactly.

Most of Shanghai is superbly safe, which is precisely why travelers like me let their guard down.  Stay safe and enjoy the rest of the city; this tea house scam shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a great destination.

shanghai skyline at night

27 thoughts on “I Was *ThisClose* to Falling for a Shanghai Tea House Scam”

    1. Im not sure i agree with the advice of giving people like this your credit card. To me that pretty much means you have to cancel that card because now its in the hands of scammers. Also i have seen these scam run by couples and even a guy with two girls. Some of then will show menus with rhe prices. Bottom line is if anyone in china but especially shanghai walks up to you speaking near fluent english then something is usually up. The typical Chinese person is going to be pretty shy and if they do approach they are pretty nervous about it in my experience.

      1. @Bill, Your bottom line is spot on (but when you’re tired and navigating an unfamiliar city, it’s easy to forget — at least for me). Yes, I would also assume you need to get a new account number for your credit card afterward but that’s usually a 5 minute phone call and not a big deal.

  1. Good thing that they didn’t hurt you. My aunt is planning to visit china, will share this blog to her so that she could be aware of the tea scam. Thank you for sharing this, it will help a lot of people.

  2. We have actually fallen for this scam. It is one of our greatest travel memories ever. The bill presented was $200, but we paid only 200 RMB (or about $27 in 2008) after negotiating. My husband insisted that all he had was 200 RMB, and once they agreed to the payment, he pulled out a roll of about 3,000 RMB and counted out the 200 for them bill-by-bill. Priceless.

  3. How frightening! Thank you for sharing. I travel on my own quite a bit, and appreciate good advice. Knowledge is power.

  4. I got caught up in the deluxe version of this tea ceremony scam a few years ago. After I extricated myself I immediately phoned Amex and lodged a scam/dispute notification. The operator told me not to worry, and ‘we’ve got your back!” Yeah, as if! I had signed the payment slip as it was my only way to physically get out of that situation intact, as the threat of violence has suddenly become a real thing. It was the only sensible option available.
    It took over 6 months of unbelievable stress, sheer incompetence, and unfulfilled promises from useless American Express call centres around the world to resolve the matter in my favour. Turns out the scammers were hanging in there with their signed Amex slip (at a figure about 10 times more than the author here experienced) and not willing to easily let go.
    My belief in the worth of American Express (something they’ve been promoting for decades) in sticky situations like this was shattered, and I seriously contemplated cutting it up, closing my account after many years.
    Also it has put me off returning to any where in China, ever, except Hong Kong.

    1. @Glenn, Thanks for sharing your experience. This is really good to know. I’m so sorry you had such troubles with American Express and I’ve only ever had the opposite (maybe I’m just lucky?). Writing UNDER DURESS on the credit card slip in theory should help anyone else because the scammers have a worthless signed receipt at that point.

  5. I experienced a similar encounter about 5 years ago in the same area, but something didn’t feel right about it and I don’t like tea enough to go to a ceremony! I was approached by a young Chinese couple who asked me to take their photo and then kept talking to me longer than necessary – I assumed they wanted to practice their English. They did their best to talk up this tea ceremony they were going to and invited me along, but I had limited time and other things I wanted to do. Later, I saw them talking to someone else in the same area and realized I avoided something. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Same thing happened to my wife and I in Shanghai. I’m familiar with “eigo bandits” in Japan, who want to practice their english, so I assumed the same from the 2 student aged couple in Shanghai. Things were off from the get go because they wanted their photo with some crappy looking building in the background (they obviously didn’t care) that nobody in their right mind would want a photo of. I thought nothing of it because I normally have AN AGENDA when sightseeing. They were nice enough and kept talking of some tea festival, and if it were just my wife, she would have went. Me, I hate tea, so I was never going to go. Not to mention, I had Yu Yuan Garden on the agenda, so I told the scammers they could come with us to the garden if they like, but that I had zero interest in tea. Wife looked up afterward and found out that it was a scam. Lucky for us, I’m hard headed and if people don’t want to do what I’ve set out to do, they can take a hike.

  6. I was in Shanghai about 5 years ago. My hotel posted a warning about this; however on my last day, I was feeling confident. A group of ‘students’ asked for a photo. I obliged. They walked along w/me, chatting. Only when they mentioned a tea ceremony did the bells go off. Said I hadn’t the remotest interest in such a thing. I was going to the museum. Young man said maybe we could just hang together. I told him I travel alone because I like to be alone…so glad hotel had warned me. Thank you for warning others.

  7. So much effort to advertise Chase and Amex !
    While Amex is mostly ok, but Chase has worst customer service ever !
    So how much did they pay you ?
    Done with this blog, thanks.

  8. I very nearly fell for the scam. I was on the subway and a very attractive young woman caught my attention as I left, wanting to “practice her English.” Also it was raining a bit, and she had an umbrella she offered to share. After a few minutes of small talk she invited me to the tea ceremony. But the place was an unmarked storefront, and inside was an empty room with the word “Welcome” painted on the wall in English. The thing looked really weird to me, and I saw a McDonald’s down the block: “Sorry, I’ve decided I’m really in the mood for McDonald’s instead. Thanks.” She could not hide her disdain at someone wanting to go to McDonald’s and she lost all interest in practicing her English. I did go to the McDonald’s for a while just to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

  9. Being from China and knowing about this kind of scam, I automatically assume anyone who approaches me in a touristy place is by default a scammer, then work from there. I’m sure I miss out on some fine interactions, but so far, the high alert has proven a great deterrent of scam.

    1. @Points Adventure, Wish it wasn’t the case. Always a fine balance between staying safe and having potentially great cultural exchanges.

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