Scams in Shanghai

There are several common scams in Shanghai targeting foreigners to be aware of.

This article gives you an overview of these scams and security risks you could face as a foreigner, and some tips on how to avoid becoming a victim.

This article was provided by International SOS, the world’s leading medical and travel security services company.

China is Low-Risk But Not Risk-Free

China is perceived by many as a fairly low risk country in terms of security threats.

Indeed, in terms of travel security risk, International SOS and Control Risks give China a ‘Low Risk’ rating on their Travel Risk Map 2017.

This means that ‘violent crime rates in China are low’ and ‘security and emergency services are effective and infrastructure is sound’, compared to other countries.

As in most Chinese cities, crime levels in Shanghai are low. 

That being said, there are still scams in Shanghai targeting foreigners and security threats you have to watch out for.

Incidents of petty and opportunistic crime are rising steadily, and as a visitor – even a long-term expat in Shanghai you may be more susceptible to the following scams in China’s biggest and busiest city. 

Unofficial Taxis (‘Black’ Taxis)

The following is a true case managed by International SOS in Shanghai.

Late one evening, a female American expat hailed a taxi in the West Nanjing Road area after leaving a cinema.

She was alone. Instead of taking a ‘normal’ taxi, an unofficial taxi pulled up and she climbed into the car.

The driver did not drive her back to her apartment, but took her to a secluded area where he forcibly took her belongings, including her wallet, passport and phone.

The victim resisted during the robbery, leading the driver to physically assault her before leaving her behind. 

A local Shanghainese walking by stopped to help her after the driver had left, and she called International SOS so that our medical doctors could arrange an urgent hospital visit, contact her employers, and start arranging the replacement of her passport with the United States Consulate.

Shanghai Taxi Warnings

If you’re taking a taxi in Shanghai, bear in mind that:

  • Most reputable taxis in Shanghai are green, yellow or blue and are clearly marked; registered taxis have an electronic identification card, which is attached to the top-left side of the windscreen. The electronic ID cards distinguish these vehicles from unofficial taxis and provide information such as license plate number and operator's certificate. 
  • Drivers are obliged to use the meter and most do. Rates are posted on the rear windows of taxis. 
  • A 30% surcharge is automatically added to the meter for rides after 11pm. 
  • Taxi drivers tend to use elevated roads or highways such as Yan’an Lu because of their relatively free-flowing traffic in comparison to the constant gridlock in city-centre areas; although this is a less direct and more expensive approach, hence sometimes confused as a scam, it usually allows quicker and more hassle-free travel within the city. 
  • Few taxi drivers speak English and visitors are advised to have their destination address written in Chinese to hand to the driver. Some free English translation hotlines are available at numbers posted inside Shanghai taxis.
  • There are benefits of ride share services in Shanghai like Didi and Uber (Uber China was recently bought by Didi so the Uber China app is now maintained by Didi), such as car and driver verification, GPS tracking and cashless transactions. Despite controversies over safety standards, ride sharing services tend to be a reliable and relatively safe mode of transport for business travellers in low travel risk locations like Shanghai. However, International SOS has not assessed exactly how Didi operates so is unable to share a recommendation. 

Dealing with Scams in Shanghai

Violent crimes targeting foreigners in Shanghai are rare, but they do occur. It’s important to remain vigilant, even when travelling and working in a low risk country.

If you become a crime victim we generally recommend that you should not attempt to fend off the attacker as this increases the likelihood of violence being used. Demands to hand over your passport, car keys, phone or money should be complied with.

Shanghai Taxi Scam

Whisky and Tea Ceremony Scams

These are two very common scams in Shanghai that International SOS is aware of. 

Two local women claiming to be university students approached a Swedish man on Nanjing Road and enquired whether they could show him around the city to practise their English. He agreed.

The trio visited a coffee shop at Shimao International Plaza, where one of the girls ordered a glass of whisky. When the man went outside to make a phone call, 11 glasses of whisky were added to the bill. The businessman was then presented with a bill for RMB 4,996 (approximately US$680), which he was forced to pay (though he was later compensated after filing a complaint upon his return to Sweden). 

Subsequent investigations resulted in the discovery of other instances wherein students are hired as ‘beverage agents’ by food and drink outlets to extort money from unsuspecting clients. Sometimes the students will pose as art students and offer to show you their artwork at a nearby tea house. Quite often the beverage of choice is traditional Chinese tea, hence this scam is also known as the Chinese Tea Ceremony Scam.

These types of scams in Shanghai are periodically reported; you should be alert to possible scams and be wary of attempts of people overcharging you for products or services, especially if you are approached by a stranger in areas popular with tourists and business travelers, such as Nanjing East pedestrian street, People’s Square and the Bund.

Other Common Scams in Shanghai

International SOS also periodically deals with cases in Shanghai involving taxi drivers reportedly tampering with the meter in order to overcharge newly arrived foreigners.

We recommend that you are aware of the current exchange rate and the average cost of taxi fares, for example journeys from the international airport into the city, to minimise the risk of overpaying.

Estimates of taxi fares can be confirmed by guide books, your local hosts or contacts. Note, however, the approved 30% surcharge for rides after 11pm which is automatically added to the meter.

Another Shanghai security risk to watch out for is pickpocketing and bag-snatching, which foreigners are increasingly becoming victims of in Shanghai, according to government-issued advisories.

Much of this Shanghai crime is associated with the city’s nightlife: petty criminals often operate from Shanghai’s plethora of bars and nightclubs. If you wish to frequent such venues, make sure you choose reputable ones and are alert when arriving nearby or leaving late at night.

Shanghai’s bag-snatching and pickpocketing crime is associated with the city’s nightlife, so make sure you are viligent if out at night.

Fake Bottled Water and Food Scams in Shanghai

Some common scams in Shanghai are not violent, but can affect your long-term health or cheat your pocketbook. You should be careful of:

  • Fake Bottled Water: One Shanghai expat discovered he had been receiving fake bottled water from a delivery man he met on the street. After getting stomach pains he called the water supplier's official hot-line. They immediately sent over someone to check the label and test the water which was revealed to be fake. Make sure to only buy from reputable water suppliers and the approved delivery service in your neighborhood, or consider installing a drinking water filtration system and have it checked regularly.
  • Fake Food Labeling: Several people were arrested in Shanghai for selling fruit with fake labels pretending to be expensive imported brands. 
Fake Bottled Water Scam China

A Final Word

China is a safer country than many, but it pays to know the common scams in China and other security risks you may face, especially as a foreigner traveling or working here.

If you’d like to know more about how International SOS helps China expats and business travellers manage their travel security risks visit our website at:

Scams in Shanghai Targeting Foreigners Reported in the Local Press

Here are some more scams targeting foreigners in Shanghai reported in the local press:

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