If you’re not a world traveler, chances are good that you’ve never heard of the Beijing Tea House Scam. If you do ever journey to The Forbidden City, however, be on your guard: this notorious fraud attempt could cost you thousands.
A High-Level Scam
Well beyond the tricks of your average pickpocket or street-corner hustler, the typical Beijing Tea House Scam starts with a friendly face: a fellow tourist or likeable local who strikes up a conversation with you, the intended victim. The bait-scammer is often an attractive-yet-innocent-looking young woman, for obvious reasons: women feel safer talking to another woman, and men? Well, men have a hard time saying “no” to a pretty face.
But your new friend isn’t all she appears to be. Her actual job is to ferret out unsuspecting tourists to the area, establish a rapport, and entice them into a local tea house: an Oriental version of “Can I buy you a drink?”
Inside the café are private rooms where you and your brand-new BFF can chat about the area, the history…pretty much about anything BUT the price of tea in China: all mentions of cost are deliberately omitted from the conversation. Before you get a chance to become restless, a hostess will provide light snacks and a variety of teas to sample. Oh, how pleasant…
… at least until it’s time to leave.
At that point, you realize that friendliness had nothing to do with the whole set-up: the proprietors expect to paid, and the prices are so high they make airport pricing look like chump change. The cost of your visit will commonly run into the hundreds of dollars … a “steep” price for even very good tea (and it probably won’t be).
It gets worse, too: whip out a credit card to pay, the hostess ducks in the back and guess what? Now they have your card number … who knows how much you’ll end up owing by the time the receipt is actually sent to the bank? One added zero squeezed onto a line, and you end up owing 10 times what you actually signed for (which was already likely 10 times more than the tea was worth).
It’s not a stretch to say that tea-lovers like us are prime marks for scams like this. We love tea, and that often leads to conversations during and about tea. What could be better than authentic local tea in an authentic local tea house with an authentic local? We’ve got one foot in the door before the bait-scammer even shows up!
Afterwards, of course, we’re rethinking our position. Your best bet here is to contact the bank that issued your credit card and file a chargeback, which gives the bank permission to check into the situation. Sometimes they will simply take the money back and return it to your account. Sometimes the actual card network (Visa or Mastercard, for example) will get involved, and the tea house could lose their ability to accept credit cards.
In some cases, you may not be able to get the charge removed on your own, and will need to contact a lawyer or a chargeback expert. The odds are good you can get your money back, but it could take days, weeks, or longer.
Of course, an ounce of prevention is a far better remedy here. Be leery of strangers who seem overly friendly for no good reason. If you do follow someone into a tea house, avoid private rooms. Don’t partake of anything without a price discussion (although this has limited effectiveness, as the scammer could charge you just for being there). Never use a debit card, and if you feel you must (for personal safety) sign a receipt, take a phone pic of it before and after you sign—evidence for a later court case.