Those who regularly travel on the subway in China will likely have noticed the strange phenomenon of ‘QR code beggars’. Those people who walk around the subway and instead of asking strangers for money, ask them to scan a QR code. Today we reveal some of the insights we gained into this strange practice. How much can these people earn? What happened when we scanned a QR code ourselves? Plus some of the shady practices that reportedly go on behind the scenes.
Above: talking with a QR code beggar on the Beijing subway
How much can QR Code beggars earn?
Most of the beggars we asked refused to admit they were being paid for doing this work. They often claimed to be helping a friend doing a startup or small business. Only one of them was more open and told us directly “I get paid 1 yuan per person that scans the code“.
Our research online revealed similar numbers with prices ranging from 1.5 to 0.7 yuan ($0.23 to $0.11) per successful scan. Let’s say a beggar receives 1 yuan per scan. They work a normal 45 hour work week and they gain on average 1 new scan every 2.5 minutes. Their monthly wage would be (45 hrs x 4.2 weeks x 60 minutes) / 2.5 minutes = 4,536 RMB ($690).
From our informal observations 2.5 minutes seems a reasonable estimate as a surprising number of Chinese were willing to scan the codes.
What happened when we actually agreed to scan one of the codes?
To experiment, we ourselves scanned one of the beggars QR codes. It lead us to add a personal WeChat account. The name of the personal account was 王宇体重管理教练 (Wang Yu’s Weight Management Coaching).
A little strange we felt. The vast majority of businesses in China use service or subscription accounts for promotion not personal ones. A day after adding the personal account we received a voice message:
“Hello, my name is WangYu. Thank you so much for supporting me today by scanning the QR code. I’ve opened my own little business to help people with dieting and weight loss. If you have any friends trying to lose weight please recommend my services. My business in Beijing is getting more and more popular recently. I really appreciate your support; we are in the startup era (创业时间) now. Thank you so much.”
Roughly 2 weeks later WangYu sent us another voice message with similar content. “Thank you for following. Please recommend me to your friends.” In her moments feed Wang Yu daily posted pictures featuring her promotional events and products.
Why would a small business consider promoting in this way?
It’s believable that for a small business owner this rather unorthodox method of promotion could be effective. Especially to a dieting business which has a broad appeal across different ages and income levels.
The budgets typically needed for other common methods of promotion on WeChat such as advertising through the moments feed (currently starting at 50,000 yuan) or WeChat KOL campaigns are still far beyond the financial reach of most startups or small family businesses.
A darker hidden practice underneath?
Our online research however reveals a darker side to QR code begging. Apparently the real purpose behind this practice is often to harvest and sell people’s personal WeChat IDs. This is why scanning the QR codes will lead you to add a personal account. Using a personal account will allow them to see your WeChat ID (service and subscription accounts do not allow access to this information).
From a contact’s profile I have access to their WeChat ID
In a similar fashion to how large email or phone numbers lists are commonly bought and sold, in China WeChat IDs are readily available at a price.
Above: a typical passage we found online explaining how 1,000 WeChat ID’s can be sold for 400 yuan. 2,000 ID’s for 700 and so on up to 5,000 ID’s for 1,500 yuan.
Below: A business promoting on WeChat using bought personal information. In this case they are adding ‘from mobile contacts’ which means that they have purchased a list of phone numbers.