TCM crime ring highlights danger of being scammed
Published: Apr 17, 2014 02:48 PM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

This week 160 people were arrested for participating in a criminal organization that defrauded millions of yuan from hospital patients. Local police officials said it was the biggest criminal case of its kind in China. In March alone, the organization cheated patients out of 1.7 million yuan ($273,000).

The criminals preyed on the desperate patients - mostly non-locals - who turn up at Shanghai's hospitals early each morning in the hope of registering to see a specialist. Usually, these patients received a diagnosis in their hometown, but come to Shanghai in the hope of getting better treatment.

Since it's not very easy to secure a place to see a well-known doctor, ticket scalpers can do a thriving business in reselling pre-acquired registrations to these patients at hugely inflated prices. Even so, there are still not enough tickets to go around - and it is this that the organization exploited. Agents of the criminal gang would pose as warm-hearted people who would turn up at these hospitals and direct the patients toward disreputable private hospitals that were on the gang's payroll.

These hospitals often lacked qualified doctors, and prescribed overpriced traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) - the main moneymaker of the gang. They even employed thugs to intimidate anyone who complained and prevent them going to police. 

According to the police press release, the core management at the top of the criminal ring coerced and threatened these private hospitals into cooperating with them. The gang also supplied the medicine, and employed special "price setters" who would charge patients as much as they thought they could get out of them based on their economic situation. Participating hospitals and other involved parties were paid bonuses.

More than 2.6 tons of TCM was sold in March alone via this criminal ring. In one case, a patient bought a one-month TCM treatment for 3,800 yuan. A vice chief police official in Pudong New Area was quoted by the Global Times as saying that the medicine in fact cost about 140 yuan, and contained many of the same ingredients as a popular brand of herbal drink.

When we were talking about the case in the newsroom, someone pointed out that most members of the gang were from Central China's Hunan Province. One of my foreign colleagues said that as this gang is led by non-locals, it might prompt authorities to place more restrictions on people from outside of the city.

But I'd say it's illogical and unfair to place restrictions on non-locals just because of some cases such as this. Shanghai is an international melting pot with people from both overseas and other provinces. Street scams are unavoidable in every international city, as the constant stream of new arrivals make easy targets for scammers.

Scammers choose their targets very carefully. In the case of the TCM scam, the criminals found the patients to be a juicy target as they knew patients from out of town often carry large amounts of cash on them; that they are desperate for treatment; and that they are superstitious, believing in the magical properties of ancient Chinese herbs and the power of famous doctors in Shanghai. Even if they discover that they have been cheated and report this to police, they are unlikely to see the case through to prosecution as they can't afford to stay in the city.

Similarly, one of the most common ways to scam foreigners in the city preys on the weaknesses of tourists. The tea ceremony scam involves foreigners being approached on the street by a seemingly helpful person, and invited to partake in a traditional tea ceremony. However, when the bill comes, they will find they have been hugely overcharged. The scammers know that foreign visitors have plenty of money; that they are likely interested in experiencing a tea ceremony; and that they will have difficulty reporting the scam to the police because of the language barrier and their tight travel schedules.

The reason scams take place is they are low risk and high reward for the scammers. But there are ways we can combat this kind of behavior.

The unprecedented TCM cheating case with the large publicity surrounding it serves as a good example. The public needs detailed information in order to avoid being cheated. For foreigners, the city government website should also keep an updated account of scam cases so visitors can be alert as to the dangers. Of course, the best solution is to always have your wits about you, especially when in a strange place. Sadly, it's safer to suppose that others will cheat you rather than help you.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.