Son: “Mamma, I think I've been scammed”
Me: “oh no! Did you drink tea?”
Son: “How did you know??”
Me: “stay where you are. I’ll come with the police”.
Thursday last week: we had just arrived in Shanghai. I was relaxing at the at the hotel after an early start and a 5-hour train ride and my 17 year old son had gone for a walk on his own when I received the above wechat message from him.
So how DID I know about this scam? Well it is a quite common scam (which I had obviously forgotten to warn my kids about!) and I’ve heard that it’s more common in Shanghai than in Beijing.
Here's how it works:
Women or young couples (who are hired by restaurants/tea houses) go to the streets and approach foreigners. They'll sometimes ask to have their picture taken with you and then they start chatting. Are you a student? what do you do? etc. and finally they invite you to join them to drink tea at a tea house.
The tea is often presented as the most exclusive tea and - like in my son’s case - sometimes you're also offered a glass of Sake.
Then the bill arrives. And tadaaaaah: it’s on you!
My son was lucky. It was 400 kuai (around 50 euros) but it is often much more.
What we did
As soon as I got my son's text, I went to the reception of our hotel and asked them to call the police. That first step was rather easy but when the police arrived and I had to explain what had happened and why my 17 year old was out on his own in Shanghai, it became a bit complicated. I had to quickly think of a friend who spoke perfect English and who was a Chinese native speaker. I am very grateful to Alan who stepped in (on the phone) from Beijing!
My point was: My son is underage, I know he’s been scammed, they mustn’t get away with this, and yes I also played the “I’m-a-diplomat” card.
The next thing I see is a huge police van and two officers. They are there to pick me up so we can go together and face the owner of the restaurant. It was a very short trip but I had time to grin a little to myself while thinking “excuse me, is this a strange dream or am I finding myself in the back of a police van in Shanghai?"
My son is waiting for us outside the restaurant and we walk in together. The officers speak to the owner in Chinese (aaaargh I was so frustrated that I couldn’t understand) and within less than one minute, he gives my son 400 rmb cash. He even walked us to the lift and bowed in a slightly embarassed way.
I want to thank the Shanghai police! The policemen were kind and efficient! One of them spoke English and gave me a call the next day to say that they were doing a follow-up. But my boy was the bravest: He immediately realised that something was not right. He then contacted me and even managed to take a picture of the two women who will hopefully have to find a new job!
What to do if it happens to you:
It won’t because I’ve just warned you! :-)
I should mention that we had a great weekend in Shanghai despite this incident and that Chinese cities are generally very safe and people friendly and helpful! ...she said thinking about the similar tourist trap we fell into in Suzhou the next day when we paid a private tour organizer (in advance) and they just put us a public bus and said "bye bye"! Bad, bad luck! Nothing more!