“Hello, how are you?” said a musical voice in perfect English. She stood outside the Dongzhimen airport express station, smiling, pretty and dangerous. The same woman approaches me regularly, never noticing the same person in the sea of humanity that is the intersection of the airport express, two subway lines and the biggest long distance bus station in Beijing. It’s a practiced, rehearsed, and breezy friendliness. And every day, I know exactly where it will lead: either my pocket being picked or a scam of some kind. I pretend not to hear, and just keep walking.

In Beijing, certain neighborhoods attract lots of foreigners. Wangfujing, Tiananmen, Lama Temple, all of the famous tourist sites are populated with thousands of years of history and decades of practiced, accomplished scams. Most of the time in China, foreigners are simply overcharged. This is virtually guaranteed–wherever there is English, the price goes up. I’ve learned to demand both the Chinese and English versions of menus (I usually just grab a Chinese one after they hand me the English menu),  and by carefully comparing the characters (which I’m beginning to be able to puzzle out–although only for purposes of comparing maps to guidebooks and so forth) I can determine the correct price. Usually once I point out the discrepancy the waiter (“Fuyuan”) becomes embarrassed, starts charging me the correct price, and shows me the order ticket with the prices.

And then there are the scam artists. The average salary in Beijing is about $6,000 per year. Like the guys holding signs at the end of American freeway off-ramps, these folks have figured out that they can make a better living either scamming (or begging from) Westerners than finding a job and working. Generally, their English skills are excellent. Considering that anyone with good conversational English skills can command a premium salary doing an honest job (such as in the hospitality industry), you can infer that there is a lot of money to be made running scams. There are several well-known ones. The scammers purport to be art students, and want to lead you to a gallery where you can buy high-priced knock-off reproductions of mediocre paintings. Or they lead you to a teahouse for a traditional tea ceremony, then disappear when the 1000 kuai ($150) bill arrives for two cups of tea. There are other variations on the same theme–but in the end, the result is the same. Lured with a smile and friendly words, but ultimately cheated.

These scams are relatively transparent once you’re attuned to them, but they can become elaborate and sophisticated. Scam artists are charming and China is so disarmingly friendly anyway that it’s easy to forget that here, you’re rich.  Even if a perpetrator only scams 15 people out of $100 each every month, they’re still pulling in almost triple the average Beijing salary–tax free! So it’s definitely worth it to spend plenty of time, cultivating relationships with new “friends” over time, only to exploit them and disappear when they least expect it. A young woman can make more running scams than she could as a prostitute, and the work is a lot less unsavory.

Fortunately, this is rare. China is by no means Nigeria. There may be little honor when it comes to business, but there is a bond of trust when it comes to both personal reputation and personal relationships.  The vast majority of Chinese people I’ve met have been honorable and kind. But not the woman outside the Airport Express station.

Today, I flew from Shanghai to Beijing. I ran an event there all week, with each day packed from seven in the morning until after midnight. The venue was a hellishly disorganized and incompetent mess. By the end of it all, I was frazzled and needed awhile to decompress. And there she was, Angler Fish, with her musical voice–this time planted right in front of me saying “Hello, how are you?” Uncharacteristically, I exploded. “Every other day, you try to scam me. Why can’t you earn an honest living? Please don’t cheat foreigners!” I said, putting my hands in my pockets and wheeling around just in time to stare down her pickpocket confederate. I’ve developed a sixth sense for pickpockets since my first visit to Beijing, where I was pickpocketed in a market. “Nice try,” I said, to which she scowled and swore at me in Chinese. And then they vanished as instantly as they appeared, practically disappearing into a puff of smoke.

Beware of scams in China. This article lists many more, and here’s another article on Shanghai scams.