Never Risk Your Life For Money: A Beijing Abduction Adventure

How Stealth Wealth Failed Me: A Beijing Abduction Adventure - never risk your life for money

If there's one recommendation I can confidently give to you all, it's that you should never risk your life for money!

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.

The Negotiation

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.

Making Me Sweat It Out

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

By now, you should agree to never risk your life for money. Here are some strategies for reducing your chances of getting mugged.

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.

Embrace Stealth Wealth

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.

Money Can Always Be Reproduced

As a 43-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.

Related: To Understand Capitalism, Let's First Explore Communist China

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?

40 thoughts on “Never Risk Your Life For Money: A Beijing Abduction Adventure”

  1. About that same year, 2003, I jumped out of a cab in Beijing at a red light to avoid that outcome. I knew I was only a mile from my destination but the cab was taking me though the hood. I saw a police car and a major road intersection. When he slowed for traffic, I jumped out. Opening the door caused him to break. I flipped him twice what the ride should have cost and hot footed it to the main road.

    I had a friend with me who jumped out the same but didn’t believe we were in danger. I had been doing business there for years. He just joined me for a once in a life trip around the world.

    Glad your story reinforces the choice I made. When it doesn’t feel right, get out.

  2. I hate those China tea scams! Samurai you’re Chinese so how did they know you were a foreigner? I thought you could speak Mandarin.

  3. This article strikes really close to home for me!

    My friend was stabbed at school for running his own business!

    For the record, a kid brought a knife in to threaten him, to get $500, or he’d stab him, my friend refused to give him the money, and got stabbed, he lived but he was really annoyed!

  4. What a story! My son was mugged and abducted but he was hit over the head and really doesn’t remember much. I was held hostage at gunpoint at a drugstore I worked at as a teen but he was robbing the store’s narcotics and money, not mine. My philosophy then as now is not to get shot over money and to comply to any request to hand over money or possessions. However I also have a concealed carry permit now and if armed and threatened would use deadly force to protect myself or my family from being killed if my assailant was careless enough to allow me to pull my weapon. Unfortunately the advantage usually goes to the aggressor so being armed isn’t necessarily going to be of much help. However having looked into the wrong end of a barrel before I prefer knowing I have the option to use force if my life or the life of a friend is endangered. Of course having a concealed weapon is not legal in a handful of states and cities, but generally it is in most of the US. However a tremendous amount of training and familiarity with a firearm is also necessary for someone who decides carry a handgun. Otherwise they will be a serious risk to themselves and others.

    1. As a father now, I 100% understand why people would legally bear arms to protect their children. I would die for my son so he could live. I ration that I have had a good 42 years already, and he’s only had 31 months. That’s not fair.

      The will and revocable trust are established for this unfortunate reason!

  5. That’s a crazy story, but one that doesn’t surprise me at all. The world is a dangerous place, and if you said it happened in my native NY, I still would not have been surprised. I know folks who got mugged in the City in the bad old days of the 80s and early 90s; let alone family who had tough times in the decades before.

    10 years ago my wife and I were visiting Rio after attending my best friend’s wedding in Sao Paulo. He met a girl here that was from there. My wife stands out with her red Irish hair let alone our habit of speaking out native English. I know a few hundred words of Spanish and had learned about 100 words of Brazilian Portuguese for the trip. Walking the Copacabana beach and Ipanema beach where military police are stationed every 100 feet or so with sub machine guns was a new experience. The guns didn’t bother me, I am a veteran, but the fact that there were so many in a great tourist spot told me to be on alert. In spite of that, we were still offered drugs by folks in between the cops. That blew my mind. Needless to say, we said no or ignored them. Both of us having grown up in the NYC area, and having spent a lot of time in NYC as kids in the 80s when NYC was still dangerous, we were used to being careful. I think that helped us even though we were not city kids like 3 of our 4 parents are. My wife’s dad grew up on a farm in Ireland.

      1. In Rio you do as Fletch did. When you go out take only the money you need, and keep it in your shoe. Anything else will be taken. Earrings will be snatched out of ears, etc.

        This is actually a good idea in many places besides just Rio.

  6. I was in Thailand with my brother. Took a taxi from the airport to the hotel and the driver wanted more than what on display on the meter. Told him to fk off and I am only going to pay what is on his meter. Next we walked by a street vendor trying to pawn fake watches. My brother was being a smartas and wanted to see how low he can get a fake rolex for. it went from a few hundred US dollars down to ten dollars. And he still didnt buy it. So the seller got pissed and started whistling next thing we know a few of guys came out of the alley way both of us just looked at each other and we ran to the nearest public transit. made it out alive. Funny thing is we actually saw a guy that paid a few hundred dollars for a fake rolex… hehe

  7. As a father of 2 young kids in my mid 40’s, I try to be mindful of and implement Cooper’s Color Code System of Awareness and obeying the 4 S rule for crime avoidance when possible, and becoming more so in the last 5 years. Stay frosty!

    White – unaware, not paying attention
    Yellow – attentive, but relaxed
    Orange – focus is directed, there is an immediate potential threat
    Red – there is a definitive threat
    Black – you are actively fighting

    4 S rule to avoid:
    Stupid People
    Stupid Places
    Stupid Things
    Stupid Times

    A lot more info below. NSFW and some info is not PC but reality.

    1. Man, your link is just a paean to paranoia and racism*. Enjoy life in your bunker!

      *Class/income is much more tightly correlated with crime than race.

      1. Far far from paranoia or bunker. I didnt write the article. It’s just someone’s POV so take it w a grain of salt. Craft your own path and setting. Out.

        1. Consider these facts:

          1). Profiling of serial killers is known to be BS, and such profiles have been shown to be worthless in catching mass murderers. If it doesn’t work for important high-profile crimes, why would it work for finding petty criminals – outside of a context of White paranoia?

          2). Racial profiling is racist. (Just one reference out of zillions: . The research in these areas now focuses on detecting racism in cops, rather than arguing over whether profiling is racist, which should tell you how the science turned out on that one.

          So, we have a failed technique that is racist. From a practical point of view, what is the use of profiling besides identifying yourself as a racist?

  8. Financial Freedom Countdown

    That is such a crazy story Sam! Glad you got out alive.

    This brings back memories of my trip to Costa Rica. I was unable to find a taxi back from the local club and decided to walk home. Ran into a group from Honduras. Luckily I only had $200 cash with me and I handed it over to them. Did not have any other possessions with me.
    Now I am totally unfazed when I wind up in the Tenderloin :-)

  9. i was in shanghai, touring the sites, when a “nice” woman came up to me and asked if i wanted to go to a traditional tea ceremony. i am that gullible American who fell for the trick because i wanted to hang out with authentic locals! she took me to a room in a mall with a few friends including a brute of a guy, served me tea, then told me i owed several hundred dollars. i told her i didn’t have that kind of money, and this brute scowled at me. she escorted me to an ATM so i could withdraw the money. while taking the escalator back up to the room, i literally ran down in the opposite direction. i looked up to see her and her friends screaming and shouting at me, but thank GOD they did not chase after me. as a young woman alone in a foreign country where i didn’t speak the language, i was scared for my life. i honestly thought i was going to get kidnapped and no one would know what happened to me. i’m so lucky i got out!

  10. Omg what a crazy story. I don’t know what I would have done. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to keep as calm as you managed to. So glad things turned out okay. Yikes

    So many crazy reader experiences too. I’ve done a small bit of traveling by myself but never ventured out alone after dark except for places I knew very well already. Fortunately I never ran into trouble but you really just never know. Gotta be on alert at all times!

  11. Sam,

    You were fortunate to have only lost $2K, good thing you didn’t loose any organs.

    My last 2 trips to Italy was abit hairy, got followed in Rome and Naples by some bad looking dudes. So now every time I go to anywhere in Europe, I’m a “Canadian”. They respect the American greenback but deep down you can see they hate americans.

    1. Devin Forbes

      Please be polite and don’t give us a bad name if you’re pretending to be Canadian. It bothers me that so many American’s I run into abroad lie about that.

      1. What’s the big deal Canadian? Nobody even notices you except for your Natural resources, maple syrup and service industries which is highly dependent on the good ole USA!

  12. Glad you made it out with your life. I’ve traveled a lot over the years and I like to have fake money in my pocket in case I need to ditch it and run. By fake I mean different foreign currency that you can buy on eBay that is out of date and not worth much, but is real. I figured if someone wanted my money I can toss it at them while they try and get it and hopefully I can get away. Haven’t had to test that scenario thankfully. Don’t think that would have worked in your case.

  13. Mugged at a bus stop in Oakland, CA when I was a teen. The robber took my purse and ran off. Thankfully, i was unharmed and didn’t have much in my purse, less than $20, no credit cards or IDs. This was before 9/11 so I didn’t bother to carry IDs and my parents didn’t give me a credit card.

  14. WOW Sam that is a hair-raising story! You’re such a pragmatic guy and generally so good at making life-arbitrage decisions, I’m curious why it wasn’t immediately obvious to you that you should just hand over the card and the number rather than risk your entire existence. Was there something about the guys that made you feel you could cut a deal, or confident that their threats of extreme violence were a bluff?

    I had a situation a few years ago with a Tijuana “security officer” shakedown, but I felt confident bargaining with him because the threat was jail rather than imminent death or dismemberment, and he projected a vibe that bargaining was okay. I managed to talk him down from the $500 he initially wanted to $160. But if he’d been really intractable, I would definitely have paid the $500 because, you know, avoiding Tijuana prison is worth the price of a dinner at Mastro’s!

    1. Financial Samurai

      Not sure. I’ve been in a lot of physical conflicts in middle school, high school, and college.

      B/c I was used to conflict, I wasn’t as afraid as maybe someone else who has never been in a fist fight or got suspended from school.

      I was mainly thinking about NOT messing up my first business trip at my new job. So I was calm, courteous, and wanted to find a peaceful resolution.

      But in my mind, I wanted to beat the crap out of each one for wasting my time and kidnapping me. But, i was outnumbered, so had to think of more peaceful ways.

  15. Keeping calm is everything.

    Probably the first time I was ever in danger of more than just a school yard fight. As a 12 year old in Bangkok, I secretly left our apartment compound and went on a walk to try to find store I knew was somewhere down the Soi. Looking for it, I could I noticed when one of the local boys around my own age saw me and seemed to be surprised. He called something to someone and after that more kept trickling in, calling to each other and watching from a short distance. I was pretty obtuse but I read a lot and this eventually registered on me.

    I made a face, pretended I hadn’t found whatever I’d been looking for, and then, showing no excitement or rush, started my way back to the apartment compound. The boys, I assume it was a gang, held off, probably because, as a westerner, I was a good bit larger than any of them, and they were still collecting their numbers when I turned and walked between the compound guards. Judging by the numbers in my peripheral vision, I think it may have been just in time.

    1) You only have rights where you can enforce them, or where someone else will enforce them for you. Avoid other places. This kinda goes along with avoiding places where you are not at the top of the food chain. And don’t put yourself in a position where you are at all likely to be attacked or captured.

    2) Regardless, stay calm when it gets terse, at least on the inside. And don’t let anyone see any external reaction from you that you don’t want them to see.

    6) Americans are wealthy. It does make you a target, although in some cases it also makes you safe. In some high crime areas in the world, you can leave your wallet on a counter (don’t test this, although I’ve seen it happen) and come back and find it untouched, hours later. Mainly because the locals know that the local crime boss will be most unhappy with them if they scare away the easily-bilked American tourists that buy tons of junk at top dollar. On the other hand, in any sort of an accident, you will generally be found to be at fault because you are clearly rich and can afford to make reparations.

    8) Seek to be a nobody. That’s not bad advice for a lot of things. Celebrities deliberately trade away their anonymity for moolah. Likewise, some people with moolah like to show off, but that’s their personality defect. One of the saddest things in the world is someone who’s famous that is not rich (think the late Gary Coleman, for example). Far better to be anonymous and rich. Able to run out to Wal-Mart at 1:30 AM to grab a new keyboard (after yours just went kaput) and never having to worry about taking along a bodyguard. Or having to consider who might see you leaving your girlfriend’s house in the early hours of the morning, and maybe even take a picture to sell.

    9) Robert Heinlein once commented on people who thought it better to be a live lion than a dead dog (or vice versa). Better, he suggested, to be a live lion. If you are still alive afterwards then you can always come back roaring on your own terms.

  16. Same experience in Paris. Wrong place, wrong time – they took $200 bucks but I also got a nice Belgian beer.

    My Shanghai story of how quickly a mob can develop is also scary. It was a crowded Fri. night in the Bund. Apparently, I knocked into some guy and he dropped his beer. He started yelling at me and instantly I was surrounded by 100 angry Chinese yelling at me. I was trapped. Fortunately before they started knocking the crap out of me, a nice Shanghai police lady came up and escorted me out of there. That mob literally developed in 30 seconds – crazy.

    Gotta pay attention I guess.

  17. Ugh! This happened to my kids who are 30 years old and seasoned travelers-they went to a tea house that was recommended by their hotel-they are sure they were drugged! They immediately started feeling bad and got an Uber back to the hotel where they feel asleep for 2 days

  18. I’m glad you made it out ok and I’m surprised you didn’t share this story before.

    Customer service is key. I wonder if Citi would have credited a non-gold card member?

  19. What? That’s a crazy story. I pay a lot of attention to safety whenever I’m in an unfamiliar place so I never had these issues. Yeah, I’d give it up ASAP. I’m a wimp.
    $300 isn’t worth risking my life and limbs.
    I always tell people I’m from Thailand when I’m oversea. :)

  20. Wow.

    It’s great that your instincts kicked in and despite the odd and unfamiliar situation, you resorted to what you felt were your best options hoping it’ll all fall your way. And in your case, it did! Since you weren’t harmed and your money was also credited.

    It’s hilarious though that they poured you a beer. So in a way, I guess that $2,000 limit put a stop to what could’ve been an even longer interrogation.

  21. Wow. What an insane way to start of a business trip.

    Glad made it out of that relatively unscathed and that Citi didn’t leave you on the hook for that amount.

    There are countless people who have lost their lives because of trying not to give up money in a mugging or robbery. You are right that it is not worth it as money is replaceable and your life is not.

  22. I got drugged in China at a nightclub… or maybe it was the fake beer who knows. I woke up on the side of the road, cut on my face that needed stitches and my scooter missing/stolen along with my wallet. No idea how I got there or where I was. The panic that set it was huge. BUT like all things; this turned into a good cocktail party story. Glad you still have your hands.

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