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About 10 years ago I traveled to Shanghai. When I got off the plane, a guy in plain clothes came up to me and indicated he could take me to whereever I needed to go. I was planning on taking a taxi to the hotel, so I tried to tell him that I wasn't interested. But he was very persistent. He followed me as I went to pick up my baggage. Then he followed me as I went to a payphone to call a friend who I was supposed to meet at the hotel. He must have followed me around for at least a half hour.

Finally when I was ready to leave the airport, I humored him and walked out of the airport with him. He pointed to an unmarked van, and he had a partner standing next to the van. At that point I said "no way" and went back into the airport. He didn't follow me after that.

I'm curious about that incident. Was he just an unlicensed "taxi" driver, or could it have been something more sinister?

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    This sounds like the plot for the next 'Taken' movie... – dayuloli Mar 9 '15 at 9:52
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    Almost identical incident happened to me in a train station. A couple of guys spent about an hour for a deal that they didn't get (I took a bus instead of their taxi). Did this guy you mentioned stayed inside the Airport arrivals that outsiders aren't allowed? I'm sorry I don't understand why this question has 10+ upvotes for an incident that happens in airports around the world. – Ayesh K Mar 9 '15 at 10:37
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    @AyeshK Never encountered that one, so it's informative for me. Perhaps they were busy with other passengers or I am too scary... :o) – Thorsten S. Mar 9 '15 at 10:56
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    Just people trying to make money – Huangism Mar 9 '15 at 14:03
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IKeelYou's answer is excellent for the general case, but I'd like to add some specifics, since you mention this is in China.

This guy was trying to sell you transportation service. This is a very popular way for people with cars to make money, because just getting tags (i.e. current stickers, registration, license plates, etc.) is both expensive and difficult, easily costing ten to fifty thousand yuan, plus there are a limited number available. That's just tags, mind, so it's on top of the cost of the actual vehicle. Having a car in China is both very expensive and a significant status symbol. Technically, he's breaking the law by operating as an unlicensed taxi, but the reality in China is that nobody cares as long as nothing egregiously illegal happens.

Touts in China are aggressive, especially for something as completely fungible as a taxi ride, and especially to foreigners (I'm guessing you aren't ethnically Chinese or are somehow otherwise obviously not a local). Following a likely person (e.g. foreign, relatively wealthy) around to try to convince them to buy is extremely common. The idea is to pester you until you give in and pay for a ride just to shut them up. The best way to deal with them is to refuse to acknowledge them at all. Don't say anything to them, don't look at them, just act as if they don't exist and walk quickly past. If they are really insistent despite this, turn around and say "No!" loudly and firmly. Don't be afraid to put a bit of edge in your tone and assume an angry countenance; this will make it crystal clear that you really mean no. As opposed to being polite and friendly ("oh, that sounds nice, but no thanks"), which will be taken as a signal that they should work harder to convince you.

Unlicensed taxis are quite common in China; there's nothing unseemly or shady about taking one, though they are less popular than official taxis with the locals, what with being technically illegal and all. However, it's definitely better to take a regular taxi if you're a tourist, have language difficulties, or are generally unfamiliar with the area. Not because they'll kidnap you or some such thing, but because you'll get taken for a ride metaphorically as well as literally; i.e. end up paying a hefty "tourist tax". Official cabs have meters and posted signs about the cost, so you know how much it should be (though that's not to say they don't have tricks they can pull to up the price), while prices in an unlicensed taxi are always negotiable (and usually higher than an official cab). Taking a proper cab also means you know the driver has a license, is more likely to know how to get where you want to go, and has at least some skill operating the vehicle. On the other hand, the illegal taxis are much easier to hail and will operate at hours when regular taxis won't. So if you really want a ride right at that moment...

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    What are "tags"? – hippietrail Mar 9 '15 at 6:03
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    License plates and stickers that show the registration is currently valid. – Esoteric Screen Name Mar 9 '15 at 6:05
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    Hm, I've never heard them called anything else (tags, which need to be renewed, are different than the physical plates, which you only receive once), either in the US or Europe, but thanks, I don't want to be confusing. – Esoteric Screen Name Mar 9 '15 at 6:42
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    @EsotericScreenName: Really? "Tags" definitely not a term anybody in Australia would understand to mean "license plate". I've travelled in almost every English speaking country but I didn't really talk about this particular topic in each of them, but I bet it must be an Americanism, so maybe Canada and Belize uses it but I'd be surprised if the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, etc use it. Might ask on our sister site (-: – hippietrail Mar 9 '15 at 12:48
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    I think that you accidentally the end of your last sentence. – dotancohen Mar 9 '15 at 18:51
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This is very common in many airports around the world, someone who is trying to make a living by driving people form the airport and offering their services. Usually they are tourist traps and they will try to take as much as they could from you, unless you know how to deal with them.

Their services vary, they can be taxi drivers, they do offer accommodations (they have some sort of agreements with cheap hotels where they get some sort of commission). In some places, they can be pimps as well and they might start talking about their lovely friend who is a female and so on. Last but not least, they can offer drugs as well. I do not generalize all of these services to all of them, it depends on the country and the person, many of them are just honest people trying to make a living.

If for some reason one decides to use their services, they always start chatting about if it's your first visit to the country, or whether you speak the native language, etc. After that chat, they will try to go as expensive as possible depending on how they see you, also they will be able to know what kind of service to offer, should they offer you just the ride, or should they go beyond that!

Are they to be avoided at all times? Mostly yes, but sometimes no. Avoid them if you are new to the place and do not know the way around and do not speak the language, avoid them at all costs. If you are familiar with the place, and familiar with the people and rules there, they could be a good last resort when there is no taxi. Sometimes they offer services cheaper than the metered taxis if you know the way around. I have used their services myself in Indonesia and in Saudi Arabia, but I speak both languages and I know my way around these countries, but for sure I will not use their services anywhere else.

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    I met one like that in Cairo in 1999. He was actually extremely knowledgeable about the Egyptian tourist traps, and took us to local food and a hotel that was relatively inexpensive. I really feel that I got a lot more out of my trip having met him, and I'm sorry that I do not remember his name. So some of these follow-you-around folks really can help out. – dotancohen Mar 9 '15 at 18:48
  • Ran into something similar in the airport in Santiago, Chile. This guy didn't have a taxi, though. He was offering his services within the airport. Which lines move fastest through customs? He knew. What paperwork will I need where? He knew. What do I need to put on this Spanish-language form? He knew. When we needed to transfer to a domestic flight he bypassed the lines, schmoozed an agent and got us through quickly. He worked for tips only, and he didn't tell us that until he'd gotten us through every roadblock. We definitely benefited from encountering him. – Meower68 Aug 23 '17 at 22:00

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