It happened again last week. Multiple calls from the same person, wanting to speak with me urgently, yet refusing to provide any information to our receptionist on the nature of his issue.

I eventually called this person back and here’s pretty much what we discussed (which was essentially what I have heard from two other callers in the last 6-8 months or so):

Caller:  I’ve never done this before and I feel terrible.

Me:  Done what? Talk to a lawyer?

Caller:  Gotten that kind of massage.

Me:  Okay. But why are you calling me? Can we start at the beginning? 

Caller:  They took my passport and said that I would never be able to enter the country again unless I paid them USD$4000.  I didn’t have that money so I went to an ATM over the next few days and kept paying them and I had the rest sent to me by Western Union.

Me:  Wait a second. Can we please start at the beginning. I am totally confused.

Caller:  I went to get a massage. I was tired and my back was hurting. I’m never going to do that again, I swear to you.

Me:  Okay. Look, what you do is really none of my business.

Caller:  I know but what I did was wrong and it led to a lot more than that and I have never done that before and I am really ashamed.

Me:  Okay.

Caller:  And right after it all happened, the owner and two others burst into the room and one of them looked like he was a police officer. They told me that what I had done was illegal and they demanded by passport and I gave it to them.

Me:  Okay.

Caller:  They then told me that they were going to hold my passport and press charges against me unless I paid the USD$4000 fine. I gave them all I had on me and told them that I would need more time to get the rest.

Me:  Did you pay them the rest? 

Caller:  Yes.

Me:  Did they return your passport?

Caller:  Yes.

Me:  Are you now back in the United States?

Caller:  Yes.

Me:  Then why are you calling me now? When did all of this even happen?

Caller:  Three months ago, but my company is sending me back to China and I am worried that I am going to get arrested for what I did. I swear I will never do anything like that again.

Me:  Yeah, that would be wise. But what do you want from me?

Caller:  Do you think I’m going to get arrested?

Me:  I have no idea. Those guys are probably just so delighted to have made USD$4000 off of you that they don’t care about you anymore and who knows if the guy in the uniform was a police officer or not and since what they did was almost certainly illegal, I doubt if they ever reported you to anyone, much less border patrol, but I don’t know. 

Caller:  But should I go to China?

Me:  That’s your call. We could spend all kinds of effort trying to find out if you are on any police or border lists or not, but no matter what we do we’ll almost certainly never know for sure. 

Caller:  I’m never going to do anything like that again. I really do feel so ashamed.

Me:  Okay. Well. Good-bye. 

Caller:  But should I go or not?

Me:  I really can’t tell you one way or the other.  You are the one who is going to need to make that decision. But if you do go, I would stay away from the neighborhood in which that massage parlor is located. Good-bye.

Caller:  Good-bye. And I was being serious when I said I would never do anything like that again. I really have learned my lesson.

Me:  I understand. Good-bye.

It seems this scam is becoming fairly common. Were you aware of it?

Oh, and if you need another reason not to do what this guy did, check out this article.

  • That’s a pretty bad one. Reminds me of a Canadian colleague who, at the age of 65, decided out of the blue to move to Fuzhou to teach English with us in 2005. We had this conversation once after he came back from a short trip to Shanghai.
    Him: “So after several drinks at Malone’s I walked out onto the street and this beautiful young woman stopped me and started talking, and soon she invited me to go sing karaoke with her. I didn’t have any plans so I went along. We walked into this room and started singing. She kept ordering shots of whiskey for us. When I asked her why she drank so much, she said it was because she was sad. So we drank, and drank, and pretty soon I felt pretty drunk and passed out. When I woke up they presented me with the bill”
    Me: “How much was it?”
    Him: “It wasn’t that much”
    Me: “How much?”
    Him: “A few thousand Canadian dollars”
    Me” “!!!!!!!!!!!”
    We talked a bit more, but he refused to admit that he had been caught in a scam. He muttered some comment about karaoke bars being outrageously expensive and never brought it up again.

  • allroads

    Reminds me of the bit that Richard Jeni used to do on Comedy Central where he replays a wild night out and (while hugging the toilet bowl) promises God that if he makes it all stop he will never do it again.
    punch line being “and this time I really mean it”
    I wonder if he is in charge of the QC for a major brand whose products will be recalled 10 days after Christmas.

  • MHB

    Please say you charged him…

  • Bob Walsh

    Poor bastard. I like the way you tell the story. “Dear Penthouse Forum, I always thought your letters column was a bunch of made-up crap, -until the other day, when an amazing thing happened to me…”

  • John

    Having been here in China for over 11 years, I can say that this story is totally absurd. I will assume that the person in question is a foreigner. Generally, speaking if a foreigner is caught (by the PSB) doing something “inappropriate” in a “massage parlor”, they get off with a warning for the simple reason they don’t want to deal with all the paperwork. I wonder if the person that “looked like” a policeman showed ID which hes is required to do. I think either you have been had or this person was terribly unlucky.

  • anon

    This scam’s been around for so long I recall reading about it in a Wang Shuo novel in the 90s. I’ve heard of a few guys getting caught in something similar over the past decade or so – none for that insane amount of money, though. What I find interesting is that the only guy I know who’s been robbed twice like this (both times through beatings, rather than someone impersonating a cop) is from New York City. In NYC he’d never follow some stranger into a dark alley or far into the outer boroughs with promises of sex for money. But for some reason once he moved to Beijing any sort of common sense went out the window.
    My sense is that the girls striking up a conversation and getting you to buy her overpriced drinks scam that Matt mentioned is more common. I walk down Wangfujing in Beijing a few times a week and I’ve seen the same women approaching tourists for over a year. Every month or so I see one of them in a different neighborhood with a different guy with shopping bags under her arm. The guy always seems to be enjoying himself, so I never have the heart to break it to him.
    Are these three calls an increase in people calling you about this scam?

  • Jim

    There was an article in the Shanghaiexpat last week about a Chinese man who was sentenced for impersonating a police officer at a massage parlor and demanding loads of money from a foreinger in similar circumstances.

  • Jim

    Correction, meant Shanghai Daily.

  • KR

    Love this post. This is known locally as a “Rub and Tug.”
    He got scammed…literally with his pants down. He shouldn’t fear returning, he just needs to remember not to follow his wang around. They get what they deserve actually. Fools come over here and think it’s a free for all. If he wasn’t such a greenhorn he would have known just to walk right out of the room. They would have done nothing.
    Once my clients had that problem in a KTV in Beijing. I walked in, grabbed the Chinese guy by the shirt and told him in Chinese that I’d get the cops in here and make sure he never saw his family again (bluff on the family part) but it worked.
    Another time I had friends over here and I let them out of my sight (they went to the museum) and I didn’t think they’d get into trouble but they followed their wangs into a tea house and also got scammed for that magic number of 4000USD. Just for TEA. They were all in a huff and wanted me to come down there and knock heads together but I told them the best way to avoid a problem is to “not be there”
    Luckily for me I worked in a bar for 3 years before coming over here and so I have never been this stupid.

  • nulle

    what a moron! you don’t go to massages by themselves. the idiot shouldn’t gave up his passport, officer or no officer. then I wouldn’t gave them the cash, let them report it to the police..
    I am also curious does this scam works on expats of the Caussian variety??? massages are legal in china as long as no propositioning is involved, that’s why you go in teams of 2 or more (more is merrier.)
    always have your phone around and don’t get drunk.

  • Bob Guccione

    Did you charge him for your advice?

  • First of all, why was this person carrying around their REAL passport? A copy is fine. I was questioned by police once when my wallet was stolen and when I told the officer it was a good thing my passport was safe at home, he agreed even though it took a little longer to verify my identity. Secondly, why didn’t they call the police and tell them someone claiming to be a cop is extorting $4000 from you. Also, what kind of “massage” place did they think they were going to? One of the first things we learned in China was go to a massage place with another person. Also, any reputable place closes about midnight and has no pink lights or depressed girls hanging out by the front windows.
    It could have been a police officer getting his cut of the $4000. Really though, if he had stood up to them and threatened to call the police, chances are nothing would have happened to him.

  • lokokkee

    Haha, consider which is worse, getting off with just a ‘fine’, or having your home minister come down to the station to bail you out (for a local) or having your passport stamped as persona non grata if they actually throw the books at you for being caught with the pants down.

  • Anon

    L-O-L. That is all.

  • Dan

    That’s a great story.

  • Dan

    For what it’s worth, I got the strong sense he really did mean it.

  • Dan

    I did NOT charge him. It was just the one phone call.

  • Dan

    @ Bob Walsh,
    And the crazy thing is that this guy was just one of three!!!

  • Dan

    Of course this person was had!!!??? I’d give 100 to 1 odds that the “policeman” was a private security guard at best.

  • Dan

    These three guys are not only an increase, they are the only calls I’ve ever gotten and, if my memory serves me right (and I am not sure that it is), I believe all three were reporting of Shanghai.

  • Dan

    @ Jim,
    I wonder if all three calls involved the same massage parlor and now the scam has been shut down. I doubt that though.

  • Dan

    Guess if you are going to scam someone, you “go big or go home.” I think in at least one of the cases (maybe even all of them) the initial amount sought was even higher than the $4,000 paid.

  • Dan

    @ nulle,
    Agree on all points.

  • Dan

    @ Bob G.,
    No, I did not charge him. Do you think I should have?

  • Dan

    @ lokokkee,
    I think it was that fear that probably got him to pay.

  • Dan

    @ Myra,
    I agree with you on all points. I think that, technically, one is required to have one’s passport with them at all times, but must people (including me) usually go around with just a copy or even nothing at all.

  • Dan

    @ Anon,
    Is your “L-O-L” to mean laugh out loud or lots of luck?

  • Anon this time

    This scam became extremely popular about six months back in a particular neighborhood in Shanghai. The police were alerted to it and they have cracked down hard on it, hence the Shanghai Daily article. I cannot reveal how I know this, but trust me when I say that I do.

  • Honestly, we’ve never gotten a call like that. Most of the sex-scam cases that we see are the classic “bar girl meets guiless vacationer, cons him into marrying her/buying her a house/ buying her gold/ etc., bar girl vanishes.” Just out of curiosity though, were all three cases involving foreigners who wanted to re-enter China after being caught with their pants down?

  • XY

    This scam has been going on in Shanghai for years.

  • Nursaliem

    Is it possible for a foreigner to be held at customs without contact with his embassy or family?

  • harrybarry

    I’ve been reading a lot of stories of people like me who were victim of the infamous
    shanghai scam. However, they didn’t really focus on what to do after it
    happened to get your money back. I did manage to get my money back, so I hope
    that this will help some people who have experienced the same thing. In my case
    it was the sexy massage scam, but I guess it might be helpful if you were
    victim to other scams (e.g. teahouse) as well.

    Now, in an ideal world you would go to the police, they would join you going back to where you got scammed, they would arrest or preferably shoot the people that scammed you and you get your money back. My experience in Shanghai was not like this. There can be a few reasons why you don’t want (or cannot) take the police back to the place where you were scammed:

    -Lazy cops. The police of Shanghai knows that these scams take place every day, but they don’t do anything about it. They might not be very enthusiastic about joining you, because it means they actually have to work. Some of them rather sit
    behind the desk all day.
    -Some acts of prostitution occurred during the scam (happy ending with massage scam). In this case, if you are honest to the police you will be prosecuted for
    prostitution and probably not enter China again anytime soon.
    -You don’t feel like meeting these bad people again.

    In any case, if you manage to get a police officer to come with you it is questionable if you will get all your money back. It will be your word against theirs and they can probably communicate with the police better than you.

    That leaves you with two other options; cancel the transaction with your credit card company (what I did) or get your money back with your travel insurance (in
    essence you got robbed). When you paid with cash the latter will be your only
    option. For both cases you will need an official police report of what
    happened. This is relatively easy; as long as you say that you don’t remember
    where you got scammed you can write your story on some document yourself, and
    the police will give their nice stamp on it. Just to be sure I ensured that the
    story included the following details:

    -They mentioned a price beforehand
    -They spoke to me in East Nanjing road and got me into a taxi to the destination (true in my case)
    -Don’t mention where they took you, even if you remember.
    -Don’t mention any sexual actions performed during the massage scam.
    -The amount you were charged
    -That they used physical violence when you wanted to leave after paying the amount you agreed on beforehand.

    Even when these things didn’t all happen I would still mention them. Adjusting the story a little so these f***heads don’t get your money is not a very big crime when
    you ask me. With this ‘police statement’ I was able to convince my credit card
    company that I was forced to make this transaction and they were able to cancel
    it. I had to block my credit card as well because of some company policy, but I
    guess it depends on your credit card provider. If you paid with cash, or if
    your credit card company cannot cancel the transaction, you can use the ‘police
    statement’ to try and get your money back from your travel insurance.

    I went to the Waitan Police Station just of the East Nanjing Rd, and I brought a friend who speaks Chinese. It was fairly easy to get it, to my surprise.

    I hope I helped somebody with this story!

  • Justin Brkovic

    I like the fact that you sound like you regret your decision to do such a dirty thing. Been their before and learned my lesson too. I hope they gave that 4000 to that girl you were with just saying!

  • eli

    i was a hostage in shanghai for 3200$ bail ,always pay them and go to the police you gona get the money back for sure do not be afraid, they work with the police the closest station near to the case when i went to the police they did not wont to do a report but they call the boss of the people who came and paid me back he was trying to pay less and i push harder and i got that all do not be afraid of them !!! god bless