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How We Scammed Two Shanghai Scammers

Tea Scam in Shanghai, China, Uncontained Life

As long as there are tourists, there will be tourist scams. And the tea scam (sometimes known as the “tea festival scam” or “tea ceremony scam”) practiced in the busy city of Shanghai is one of the most prevelant. Check any message board and you’ll find the stories of hundreds of victims–many of them seasoned travelers who had never fallen victim to a con before.

Tea Scam in Shanghai, China, Uncontained Life

So, what’s so special about the Tea Scam in Shanghai? On the surface…not much:

A young couple (or a pair of pretty girls) speaking perfect English, and often claiming to be students, introduce themselves to foreign travelers.

Tea Scam in Shanghai, China, Uncontained Life

At some point in the chit chat, the locals invite their new foreign friend to a tea festival or “tea ceremony.” Once inside the teahouse, everyone happily tastes tea…until the insanely high bill arrives. In an ideal scenario, the traveler’s politeness trumps logic, and they pay “their portion” of bill in full. If the traveler protests or tries to walk out without paying the inflated amount owed, the scammers may threaten to call the police, or act as if they will physically prevent the traveler from leaving until they hand over some cash. 

Tea Scam in Shanghai, China, Uncontained Life

So, basically, if you are wary of English-speaking locals who approach you on the street, and have your ears tuned for the words “tea festival” or “tea ceremony,” you should be able to avoid the tea scam in Shanghai, right? Apparently not. But why not?

Justin and I were curious. Could we spot a tea scam in the offing, or would we be tricked too? We decided to stage an experiment in Gucheng Park to find out…

Tea Scam in Shanghai, China, Uncontained Life

…here’s what happened!


Shanghai Tea Scam Video Transcript

Justin: Hi, I’m Justin

Hillary: and I’m Hillary

J: and this is the Uncontained Life Travel Stories. Today we’re talking about our time in Shanghai in China.

H: And our experience with the famous Tea Scam.

J: That sounds fun. Tell us about it.

H: Sure. It’s when you’re in China, a local approaches you on the street speaking perfect english, engages you in conversation and at some point invites you to go along with him or her to a tea festival or tea tea ceremony and…it sounds great right?

J: Yeah. Local experience. A cultural exchange. Who wouldn’t want to do this?

H: Yeah. So you go along It’s all friendly, it’s all good, you’re tasting tea and then the bill comes. A very large bill.

J: Right. So they just try to take you for as much as they can get out of you, between 450 [to] a thousand dollars, whatever.

H: You’ve been scammed.

J: Alright,so, we wanted to figure out why people are getting taken by this scam because there’s actually a lot of internet information..

H: About it…

J: warning you about this, travelers, well experienced travelers have been scammed.

H: So, how does it happen? We decided to conduct an experiment to find out. We went to one of the most touristed places nearby, the Bund. There is a park by that area that is know for being a place where the tea scammers hangout. Then what happened, Justin?

J: Well, I had on my loudest shirt that I could find and my camera. I started shooting pictures and it really didn’t take that long at all. A few minutes, really.

H: Yeah, a couple approached us speaking perfect english, “oh would you mind taking a picture with our camera for us?” “Of course not!”

J: “I would love to take your picture!” So, I took the picture and I was actually kind of upset because they didn’t even look at the picture to make sure it was ok.

H: They were just like, “oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s good so tell us about yourselves. What are your names? Why are you in Shanghai? What’s your job? What’s your whole life story?”

J: It wasn’t an interrogation. They were actually really nice.

H: No, very friendly.

J: The first thing they did was actually divide and conquer.

H: Yeah, the guy kinda latched on to Justin and the girl kinda latched on to me. And again, it wasn’t an interrogation, but they definitely never stopped talking. And if they weren’t talking we were talking, let’s just say, there was someone always talking. And they said, “where are you going?” and we said “we are going to the Yu Gardens.” [They said] “oh, we’re going the same way, we’ll walk with you.”

J: So, they walked with us and talked with us and we got to kinda the end of this garden. And it was, you know, a natural place for us to say goodbye. They said they were going to left, we were going right. So, we shook their hands. Said goodbye.

still hadn’t heard those magic words, Tea Festival, Tea Ceremony.

J: Anything with tea, really.

H: So, we were like, “ok, so we’ll go with this a little longer.” So, we went with it.

J: But, we were getting farther and farther away from the center of town, from where we were supposed to be and so you finally pushed her.

H: Yeah, I said, “No, no, no, but, where are you going right now. Right now!” And she said “actually my cousin was going to have us go to a tea festival.”

J: Ding, ding, ding. You don’t have to listen to anything else they have to say. That is the magic word.

H: And I’m like, “Oh look, Justin, look at the time. We have to go right now.”

J: “Yes, I remember, honey, that “appointment” we had.”

H: “Very important [appointment]. Anyway, so what did we learn from this, do you think? Why are people so easily scammed?

J: You know, I think it’s because for one [thing], they are very, very engaging. I really wanted to hang out with these two. They were really, really nice.

H. Yeah, you didn’t feel like they were trying to get something from you. You felt like you had just made a new friend.

J: And they had a lot of valuable information.

H: Anything you wanted to ask them, they had an answer for.

J: That was our scam experience.

H: But, moral of the story. Should we never trust locals, Justin?

J: No. Just kidding. Actually we locals. That’s kinda been our thing. But, I think if you’re in a really touristic center or you know that there is a scam, anyone who comes up to you and they’ve got an agenda…

H: Yeah, speaking perfect english and kind of pressing you, whether in an obvious or subtle way, to go along with what they’re trying to do, you should have your guard up. Now, this isn’t to say, this isn’t something where it’s just China or anything like that. In fact, when we were in Beijing, we had a wonderful experience with locals who weren’t trying to get anything from us. In fact, we were in trouble…

J: We had an ATM mishap and these locals all just rallied around us and helped us to call people both in Chinese and English and we had a great experience with locals and that’s generally our experience with locals.

H: Exactly. Locals are usually super awesome! But, yeah, if you’re in a super touristic place, maybe have your guard up.

J: Yeah, now, what if you do get scammed?

H: If you do find yourself in the middle of a tea scam, you realize what’s happened, just get out of there. You know, they might start trying to intimidate you or threaten you.

J: The biggest thing is that they’re going to try make you feel bad or like you’re being culturally…

H: Insensitive.

J: Insensitive, yeah, and rude. Don’t even worry about it. You are not being rude. They are the people that are scamming you.

H: [They are} doing something bad. Throw ten bucks on the table and get out of there.

J: As fast as you can.

H: Yeah, usually it doesn’t happen, but if they try to threaten you with the police or something, you just say, “yeah go ahead and call the police” because guess what, you actually haven’t done anything illegal there, they have. They won’t be calling the police on you. In fact, you could go and file a report later.

J: Yeah, ok so, that is our scam experience. We have a lot of other fun stories on Uncontained Life. If you want to hear more about our time in Shanghai, you can go to Until next time, what do you think, should we go get some tea right now?

H: Absolutely!

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