The Infamous Tea House Scam

You’re new to Beijing, and have decided you’re gonna go out and see the sights. Here are some totally possible, potentially normal situations that you could find yourself in:

As you’re walking around tourist areas, a polite young guy approaches you and tells you that he’s a college student and would love you to take you out to lunch in order to practice his English. He’s really polite, looks well dressed, and even offers to show you around Beijing afterwards. How awesome would it be if a friendly, English-speaking local were to show you the hidden gems of the city and all of the best spots that you’d have never known about?! Definitely not an offer to turn down, you think to yourself.

A cute young girl, or even a group of them, comes up to you, shyly asking if you’d like to grab some coffee or food. Maybe she thinks you’re handsome, wants to learn more about your culture, or is looking to improve her English; whatever, it doesn’t really matter because she seems nice, comes off interested in you and is very attractive, plus you’ve read before that many of these girls want foreign boyfriends. You smile to yourself while thinking how lucky you are to have this opportunity, and would be more than happy to buy her lunch and see where it goes.

When you smile and say yes, accepting their kind offers, they tell you about a nearby restaurant or cafe with great food that they could take you too. The place isn’t down some dark alley or underneath a stairwell either, instead it’s out in the open and facing the street like a normal, reputable business; not at all sketchy and a place you yourself might’ve walked into if you’d still been on your own. When you get there, you’re even lucky enough to be able to get a private room to eat in. The menu has good prices, and this is shaping up to be a really cool time!

Honestly ask yourself; if the title of this article hadn’t had scam in it, could you see yourself ending up in that private room without having had any inklings of danger? The answer I’m going to guess you’ve come to is exactly why the Teahouse scam has been so effective on tourists and travelers, as well as why I feel the need to inform you.

Hopefully you’re reading this before you’ve accepted one of these tempting offers; the people who’ve approached you are scumbag scam artists and only want to lead you into a trap. Even people who’ve been living in Beijing for years have been duped by this scam; letting their guards down because it’s actually really common to meet somebody on the street who legitimately wants to be your friend and doesn’t have any plans to shake you down. And let’s face it… most Chinese just aren’t very intimidating to a westerner, making it a lot easier to never get any instinctual warnings before it’s too late.


Recently I was approached while doing the Night Market article.
See the guy who’s circled? He’s an asshole.

Once the bill comes, you will find that the 100RMB meal you’ve just eaten is actually 2000USD, and the waiter who has come to collect the payment has two large men next to him. That private room you’d thought you were so lucky to get has suddenly turned into a prison, and you’re not leaving until you’ve paid up; the threat of getting the shit beaten out of you or worse has been made frighteningly clear to you as those two large thugs block the doorway. What happens from here depends on the place you’re being scammed at, I’ve heard and read many different stories. Your pockets will almost always be emptied, and any expensive phones or cameras that you have with you will get taken away, forcibly if need be. Knives could be pulled and bats could be brandished, and it’s fully possibly that they might even start the shakedown with several punches to your face, skipping those annoying stages of the robbery where you attempt to reason or plead your way out of it. If you don’t have the money, it’s not going to be a simple “let ’em go and find a richer mark” situation either; worst case scenario, you’ll get severally beaten to make a point, and overall it’s standard practice for you to be escorted to an ATM or your hotel room in order to make good on your debt. Even worse, if you’re in a group, not only will all of you be shaken down, but only one of you is going to be allowed to leave. The rest of you will be kept in that room under the threat of violence, ensuring that the person who’d been sent out will return quickly and alone, with whatever cash and valuables they could gather in order to trade for your safety. Even after everything is done and you’ve been allowed to leave, it’s very possible that one of the thugs will follow you back to where you’re staying, making it very clear that they know where you’re at if you were to ever contact the authorities.

These scams are not new, and while originally worked out of tea houses, hence their name, they’ve taken place at all manner of venues; including apartment showings, the “special inventory” rooms of some small shops, various bars, and even some private “art galleries.” The fact that they’ve been being conducted out of brick and mortar establishments that are easily returned to and probably incredibly hard for a victim to forget… one must wonder how they’ve been allowed to continue. In far too many retellings of this scam, the police had refused to help victims based on very conspicuous reasons, or they just never bothered to look into the crime or give any updates once it’d been reported. This has led to the common belief that many of the cops in those areas have been paid to look the other way, and frighteningly enough, it’s only been further proven by the vicious beatings that multiple scam victims have received shortly after filing police reports… And even having moved to a new hotel that they’d just so happened to notify those cops about.

It’s practically impossible to give any advice on how to handle this scam because, for the most part, by the time you’re reading anything on it, it has already happened to you. I only hope that from the information in this article, you will be able to recognize and avoid the scam before you’re ever forced to learn about it the hard way. One consistent tip that I can give you though is that credit card companies are all too familiar with this scam, and most victims have had great success in getting the charges reversed. For the day that I hope never comes, and you slip up and find yourself in this kind of situation; don’t risk your wellbeing with these animals and just pay everything you can with your credit card, and afterwards call to work out reversing everything as soon as you’re safe.

A final word on keeping yourself safe in the future, be incredibly wary of being lead anywhere, not just in China but all of Asia. This scam is the oldest one in the book as far as tourists go, and there are hundreds of variations off the same idea, in practically any city or country you could travel to. This goes for lady bars which are incredibly popular in China and the most of Asia, as well as spots with cheap counterfeit goods, and overall just about anything that involves somebody approaching you and trying to reel you in so to speak. The more they want you to go there, the less you probably should. And if you feel that you absolutely must meet with somebody, then do it on your terms, and choose the venue yourself instead of being lead to one.

2 thoughts on “The Infamous Tea House Scam

  1. Pingback: The Wanfujing Night Market | ESL Wanderlust

  2. Your far nicer then I… I would be much more inclined to just tell them to fuck off and not bother me. I don’t care if they want to be my friend or not. 😛

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