Oh my… I still can’t believe it. There are actually good people in this world. Or the bad guys aren’t as smart as I feared. Either way, I thought I fell victim to a super sophisticated social engineering attack. But I didn’t! Let me explain…
I arrived at Xi’an train station this morning on the night train from Beijing. The hostel offered to pick me up for free, which of course I couldn’t refuse. So as promised three people were waiting for me with a sign that had my name on it.
Such a sign is crucial, because of course dozens of people will greet you with “Hello my friend, do you need taxi / hotel”. My name is not very common, so I don’t have to worry about the kind of folks who hold up a “Mr Smith” sign every day waiting to catch one. So far so good.
The hostel crew are still waiting for a few other guests and so one of them moves me to a less crowded position and chats with me for a while. But then she goes back to the meeting point, leaving me alone. I’m a grown up of course, so I can be alone, but I still felt like a sitting duck for beggars, annoying sales types and … potential scammers.
And so they approach me one by one, the usual suspects: people holding bank notes with a look on their face that suggests they want more, people trying to sell maps and other stuff I don’t need. The first category doesn’t respond quickly to a polite but firm “no”, nor to it’s Chinese equivalent or body language for that matter. I took them an uncomfortable 30 seconds on average to leave me alone.
In the mean time, almost a sort of queue had formed and after I politely tell the next person in line that I’m waiting for someone, he says: “I know, I’m from the hostel”. Still in paranoia mode I wasn’t sure if I could trust him, but we had a pleasant conversation about the hostel, possible tours, sights, how to buy train tickets etc. I also explained that I needed a train ticket to Shanghai and he said that could be arranged at the hostel for a small fee. Very genuine, not the least bit suspicious.
We also talked about scams; how everyone in Beijing seems to want to take you to their art gallery (watch how it worked on Kevin Rose, while Tim Ferriss was laughing at him). I told him that I should probably buy a T-Shirt with “No thanks, no taxi, no money, no art galleries.” written in Chinese.
A little while later I realized that “bragging” about my ability to detect a scam, was asking for it.
Then he apologized and went to the hostel crew. Or at least he got very close, as it was difficult to see with all the people in the area.
When he came back he told me that it was easiest if he bought the train ticket for me now and give it to me at the hostel. This raised some alarm bells, but I hesitantly decided to go along with it and handed him the exact fare (about €50). He then left to buy the ticket and his colleague picked me up to drive to the hostel.
By this time I felt terrible and not just because of sleep deprivation, hungriness and general sense of discomfort waiting alone at an unpleasant train station. Of course he could be speaking the truth, but the alternative theory in my head was that he actually faked being a staff member. It would have been a phenomenal scam, a solid piece of social engineering, but quiet doable, because of the physical distance between me and the hostel staff. Chinese hostels tend to have a lot of staff. I was never introduced to him through the girl who held the sign with my name on it. The part where he “pretented” to chat with the other staff members really added to the brilliancy of it all.
I was still – ever optimistic – hoping for the best, but counting on the worst. I once fell into a two person Tuc Tuc driver & Commision Shop scam in Bangkok, but that didn’t cost me anything but time, and was actually kind of fun once I figured it out and tried to negotiate it. I lost my wallet twice during my travels, with fairly limited damage (<€50), but discomfort.
I quickly reviewed my Lonely Planet for mentions of this type of scam, but I could only find the art gallery and expensive tea house scams, plus a general warning that people will try anything to make a quick buck.
So I comforted myself in knowing that the damage was fairly limited at less than half a day wages, that – contrary to what happened in Bangkok – I was not specifically warned about it in a guide book (that I planned on reading just about when it happened) and that I could always describe it as “highly sophisticated social engineering” (as opposed to me just being stupid and naive).
Why did I give him the money? Probably because I instinctively trusted him, despite my intelligence and experience warning me. Can I trust my instinct?
Anyway, the room wasn’t ready yet, so I went for a nice walk for a couple of hours. Guess who greeted me at the hostel when I came back?
Anyway, it could have ended badly, so don’t try this at home!