Categorized | Chinese, Featured

Chinese robocalls target Mandarin speakers in latest international phone scams


Technology enables a cheap and scalable model for robocalls. Photo by FTC congressional testimony.

FLUSHING – Back in April, the New York Police Department called a press conference to warn people about a robocall scam that had bilked at least 21 Chinese immigrants of $2.5 million.

If the public warning was meant to foil the scammers, it hasn’t worked. In an interview in September, five months after the press conference, Lucy Co, a Chinese-language interpreter who has worked at the NYPD 109th Precinct for more than 30 years, said that since January, more than 64 Chinese-American residents in Flushing have reported being victims of the scams.

The targets were reached via phone calls, which, when answered, played recorded messages in Mandarin, according to Co.

“Some people were scammed $81,000 … $8,000 … $50,000,” Co said in Chinese as she pulled out notes from her wooden desk near the police station entrance. “Many were asked to use MoneyGram, Western Union or to self-transfer money from their bank account,” she said.

As Co was describing the ongoing scams, a middle-aged woman arrived at the police station to report that her identity was stolen by one of the Chinese-language scam callers.

“He asked for my passport number, and so I gave it to him, along with my government ID number,” said Kaiyang Chen, a 50-year-old Chinese immigrant who lives in Flushing.

Chen said she received a call on August 20th from a man who claimed he was a police officer from Guangzhou, China. He said the police had received a package for Chen a few days earlier, which contained several Bank of China debit cards. “They suspected money laundering,” Chen said in Chinese.

To prove his police identity, the caller provided an account number for QQ—a Chinese instant messaging service—that showed pictures of five policemen. “He asked me to video chat with him, so I called. He could see my face, but I couldn’t see his,” Chen said.

“He told me to close the door and don’t let other people listen to our conversation,” Chen said. After she asked her husband and daughter to leave the room, the “police officer” asked for Chen’s bank account and Social Security numbers, which he said he needed in order to resolve the case. Chen said she gave him the numbers, and only later realized it was a scam and decided to report the case and notify her bank.

Identity theft and imposter scams, which Chen fell victim to, are among the top three categories of most reported fraud in the United States, according to nearly 2.7 million consumer reports compiled by the Consumer Sentinel Network—a secure online database available only to law enforcement—and  by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Chinese-language scams appear to have gone global. Since last year, people around the world have reported receiving calls in Mandarin asking for money and personal information. In some cases the robocalls claim to be from the Chinese embassy, reminding people to pick up a parcel or package from a consulate. In other calls, a recorded voice claims that the person answering the phone is allegedly involved in a criminal investigation, according to a statement posted by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the U.S.

Such phone scams utilize a technique called spoofing, which makes a call appear as if it were coming from a number at the Chinese consulate, according to Steve Weisman, a professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts who specializes in cybersecurity against scams and identity theft.

Spoofing “preys upon the fear of people,” said Weisman, “particularly today, where, in the United States, the government has been really hard on immigrants.”

When someone answers one of the Chinese-language spoof calls, a recorded voice prompts them to press a button to speak with a live person. In a typical call, that person tells the victim that the embassy or consulate is holding a parcel with their address, and the parcel is connected to a criminal investigation. The scammer will then transfer the call to another person, who demands that the victim wire money or hand over bank information to settle the case.

Though the calls appear to reach very broad populations, “It’s most likely targeting Chinese immigrants,” said a Chinese consulate official in New York who declined to speak for attribution. “A lot of them sent the money to a bank in Hong Kong,” he said.

The consulate official noted that such scam calls started around September last year and are part of an ongoing international phone scams targeting Chinese community around the world. He said other incidents include fake “virtual kidnapping” scams reported in Canada and Australia, where scammers, falsely claiming to be Chinese government officials, would call and warn international students that they should go into hiding to avoid deportation. Meanwhile, the victims’ families in China were told that the students had been kidnapped and would only be released after a ransom is paid.

As the phone scams ring across the world, the Chinese consulate have posted statements on their websites and news outlets warning the international Chinese community.

“Just on WeChat alone, we’ve written more than 50 to 60 articles about phone scams in our official account,” said the Chinese consulate official.

The 64 cases recorded by Lucy Co at the Flushing police station are likely only a fraction of the actual scam victims in the neighborhood, which is home to over 35,000 Chinese immigrants, according to the 2012-16 American Community Survey. In a congressional testimony in April, the Federal Trade Commission said it received an average of nearly 400,000 robocall complaints per month nationwide in 2017.

“United States federal law prevents robocalls for retail purposes,” said Weisman. “You can put yourself on the federal Do-Not-Call list, but [it] will only keep you from being called by telemarketers who are following the law,” he noted.

To combat illegal robocalls, the FTC hosted four different competitions from 2012 through 2015, inviting the public to develop technologies to analyze and block illegal calls. Robocall Challenge in 2012, for example, led to the agency awarding its winners $50,000, according to Patti Poss, attorney in the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices.

One of the winners, Nomorobo, is now available as a mobile app. It uses a technology called ‘simultaneous ringing,’ which directs incoming calls to a second telephone line that can identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they reach the user. To date, Nomorobo has reported blocking over 860 million calls.

The path of a robocall can span the entire globe. Photo by FTC congressional testimony.

Aside from the anti-robocall technologies, officials also urge people to be more skeptical of scam calls.

“When someone calls you, and they’re asking for personal information, asking for money, or asking for your financial information, definitely check it out before you provide the information,” Poss said, even if they are threatening you with dire consequences.


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