Back in 2002, something crazy happened that I will never forget. It was 10pm and I had just arrived at my hotel in Beijing. Having slept on the plane for 10 hours straight, I was more awake than a hooting owl.
My client wasn’t due to arrive until the next morning, so I dropped off my bags and went for a stroll. I had been to Beijing before as a study abroad student in 1997, but this was my first time out alone in this particular area of the city.
Does anybody sleep? I kept thinking, as the roads were jammed with side-stalls of people eating dumplings and pork-topped rice dishes. It seemed as if every other place I walked past was a dive bar inhabited by strange European tourists. Sanlitun (三里屯) was alive and kicking!
After about an hour of happy, mindless meandering through alleyways, I was struck all at once by an awful realization: I had no idea where I was. Drat! How was I supposed to get back to the hotel? What was worse: I was no longer inhaling the heady aromas of stale beer and beef broth with delight.
The air had suddenly turned sour as I noticed several shady-looking guys peeing beside a dilapidated stone wall nearby. Worse still, as soon as they were done they started heading my way, one guy barking obscenities. I looked over my shoulder– perhaps he was yelling at some other luckless trespasser? Nope, it was me. Fudge…
Into The Dark Alley
The alley where I now stood was filled with scantily clad women. Burly, sinister-looking men stood guard before rows of seedy, rundown storefronts. Perhaps a nightclub or a pool party? I wondered hopefully. Nope; no such luck. More like a secret den of iniquity, a sleazy, sordid backwater where discreet citizens came to play.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had just wandered myself smack into the heart of Beijing’s Red Light District for locals; foreigners decidedly not welcome.
My mind was racing. Time to go! I thought, as the three men drew menacingly near. But then for some reason, National Geographic’s advice on how to survive a bear attack popped into my head: stay still, don’t run. I immediately resolved not to be bear food.
My three new best friends grabbed me forcefully by the shoulders and shoved me into their lair. One seemed to be holding a butcher knife, but I dared not stare.
I found myself alone in a dingy room that smelled of stale cigarette smoke, nervously contemplating The End. So that’s it, I thought. Three years out of college and I’m going to be murdered by strangers in this piss-ant Beijing hell-hole?
Then I started getting angry and defiant.
They asked me to empty my wallet. The first thing they went for was not my cash, not my ID, but my transparent and shiny Citigroup gold ATM card! One guy yelled,“What’s your PIN to your ATM card or else I will chop off your hand!”
Apparently I believed I had regenerative hands like Wolverine, because I kept trying to tell them that my ATM card doesn’t work in China (which was a lie since I had just used it at the airport). And besides, like the Dalai Lama, I had come in peace.
Unfortunately they weren’t buying the dumb foreigner routine. After an hour of trying to distract them with “in my country” stories, I sensed they were growing frustrated.
But I was getting pissed. Nobody robs me! I fumed to myself. I should be fast asleep right now, dreaming of pork dumplings! Ever since I was a kid, I fought back against my oppressors when they attacked.
They sat me down at a table, gave me some tea (but no cookies), and interrogated me like a POW. They left me alone in the room for 30 minutes, only to storm back in again for further questioning.
After 2.5 hours of this back and forth, I realized I might not make it to see my client the next day if I didn’t cough up my 4-digit ATM PIN. I had flown all the way from San Francisco to meet this client, and, irrationally, all I could think was that I could not let my client down down. If I did, I would never be trusted by my firm to go on a business trip again!
The hell with it— they can have my damn money!
In one last attempt to confuse them and pretend I was a clueless foreigner, I wrote down two 4-digit numbers, telling them I didn’t remember which one it was. They took my ATM card with the PIN numbers and came back in 30 minutes. To my great surprise (and relief), they excitedly slapped my back, and poured me some beer! (WTF!)
After downing a glass of Tsingtao beer with them, they shook my hand, and let me go! What the hell were they so excited about over a few hundred bucks? I wondered.
Never Risk Your Life For Money
By the time I returned to my hotel it was 3am. Was I really held hostage for four hours? I thought to myself, as it felt only minutes ago that I had begun my sleepless adventure. I managed to flag a cab a couple blocks away to head back to the hotel.
Apparently the cab driver took the scenic route, because after driving for 15 minutes I realized the hotel had been just seven blocks away! Great. I had been in Beijing all of five hours, and already I had been robbed twice.
It got better still. When I logged on to the hotel internet to check my account, I was shocked.
My damned kidnappers had succeeded in withdrawing US$2,000 from my account! The most I had ever been able to withdraw was $200 at a time, so how on Earth was $2,000 taken out? And in Beijing, no less!
To put things in perspective, China’s per capita income in 2002 was only US$3,000 per year. So this was the equivalent of someone in the US withdrawing $40,000 from an ATM in today’s dollars.
Instead of feeling relieved that I wasn’t lying face down in a ditch in some dark alley, I was irate! Not only was I angry at my abductors for stealing from me, I was angry that Citi allowed such a high withdrawal limit.
My Bank Saved Me
I got Citigold’s customer service on the phone and explained the situation. They immediately saw the $2,000 debit and explained that I didn’t have the normal $300 withdrawal maximum. Because I was Citigold, the limit was actually $2,000! Holy moly, who withdraws $2,000 from an ATM?
To my surprise, the service rep was calm and told me, “Not to worry, we’ll get things sorted right away sir.” The very next day, Citibank credited my account back $2,000, and sent an official letter confirming the credit.
Hooray! I oddly felt better getting my money back than getting out of captivity. Here are some lessons from my mugging.
Lessons From My Mugging
1) Don’t walk around at night in dark alleys in a foreign land. In fact, don’t walk around at night alone in dark alleys in any land!
2) If you are attacked or captured, it’s best to stay calm. Getting physical when you are outnumbered is not the best idea. You want to understand what your assailants want and figure out a way to give it to them with the least amount of harm that will come to you.
3) Being a longtime client of a worldwide bank has benefits. Had I known that Citibank would credit my account after the robbery, I wouldn’t have put up a fight. Besides earning rewards points, travel credit cards are also a life saver for travel insurance, and for providing emergency access to cash if crazy situations like this arise.
4) More money = more problems. I had no idea that being a Citigold member meant a $2,000 withdrawal limit rather than a more standard $200 – $400 withdrawal limit back then. Know what your ATM card withdrawal limit is. Sometimes, it’s best to just have less.
5) Customer service is the key differentiator for all competing products. Despite Citibank screwing me on my latest mortgage refinance, I will continue to bank with them thanks to this incident. Once you provide the best customer service, you will have the stickiest clients.
6) Americans are viewed as wealthy. When traveling abroad, you might not want to say you’re from America. If you do, you might get more easily ripped off wherever you go. Instead, choose some socialist country where you can pass as a citizen by learning their language and speak broken English.
7) Continue practicing stealth wealth. Becoming a Stealth Wealth Master takes tremendous skill. You need to control your ego, learn how to dress unassumingly, keep your lavish purchases hidden, and learn key phrases that will deflect attention. There is very little benefit letting other people know you are wealthy.
8) Seek to be a nobody. Not only is it important to practice stealth wealth, in some situations where you want to be left alone, it’s a good idea to strip away your status. In my mugging example, I took out my expired U.S. diplomatic passport to let them know they were f*cking with the wrong person. But by showing status, perhaps that just made them want to rob me even more. If I was just some poor study abroad kid with nothing, perhaps they would have let me go.
9) Live to see another day. I understand why people who don’t have money do risky things for money. But money can be replaced. Your life cannot. You’ve got to stay alive to give yourself a fighting chance at recouping your money or seeking revenge, if that is what you wish.
As a 42-year-old father now, I see how foolish I was to risk my life for what I thought was $200. Of course if they decided to put a gun to my head or whip out a butcher knife to chop off my ands, I would have instantly complied with providing my PIN code. But when you don’t have much money, you sometimes are forced to take bigger risks.
Oh, and until this day, neither my clients nor my firm knows about what happened that night. My clients had a great trip and subsequently sent us a lot of business. Heck, I was even promoted a couple of years later.
Never take your money or your life for granted. I’m glad to be alive today and I hope none of you ever face a similarly hairy situation.
Readers, any of you ever been held hostage or mugged before? How did you handle the situation? And what do you wish you would have done?