A new robocall scam is making the rounds in New York City. Targeting Chinese and Chinese-American residents, the calls, usually in Mandarin, purport to come from employees at the Chinese consulate, who proceed to tell victims that their tax activity is being investigated by authorities in mainland China.
Scammers Impersonate Chinese Officials To Defraud Victims
It’s all an attempt to harvest the personal information of call recipients, though some callers also demand cash transfers under the guise of a legitimate “fine.” Some victims have been told to wire large amounts of money into bank accounts. The money, victims are advised, will be returned as soon as the official investigations had ended. Other people have been told to pick up a package at the Chinese Consulate.
But none of it is real, though you couldn’t fault people for being swindled. The fraudsters have gone to great lengths, setting up fake Consulate websites, “spoofing” the Consulate’s caller ID and forging official-looking documents from the Beijing Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s version of the Department of Justice.
Threatened With Serious Criminal Charges, Deportation
Some calls have involved even scarier threats. Several people have been told that their under investigation on drug trafficking charges; others have been bullied into believing that they’re at risk of deportation. The predatory callers’ website’s are scary, too. Some depict images of “potential victims,” Sing Tao Daily reports, “together with fake arrest warrants in Chinese.” Apparently, the robocallers have been gaining access to people’s passport photos, posting them online and using the sham arrest warrants as an intimidation tactic.
$2.5M Lost To Consulate Robocall Scheme In New York
Most English-speaking recipients hang up, but many members of New York’s Chinese community have fallen prey to the scam. Since December 2017, at least 21 Chinese immigrants “have fallen into the trap,” according to Sing Tao Daily, losing over $2.5 million. It’s likely that the number of actual victims is much larger; many potential victims are unwilling to report the scam to police, some because they fear deportation.
“You wouldn’t expect it, but people do fall for that sort of thing,” says Ben Yates, a Hong Kong-based attorney who specializes in cyber-security. Some Chinese immigrants, Yates told WNYC, have a legitimate fear that their activities in the US are being monitored by Chinese authorities.
“If you’re based overseas and you’re from mainland China,” Yates said, “then you may be concerned about the authorities questioning what you’re doing […] the political and legal system that operates in mainland China [is] quite different to what you’re used to in the US.”
Most of the victims, according to Donald McCaffrey, a member of the NYPD’s grand larceny squad, are elderly. And most live in the 109th Police Precinct, covering much of Flushing, Queens, though several victims hail from Brooklyn and Manhattan. One victim lost $1.4 million in the scam, their entire life savings.
Calls Come From Mainland China, Police Say
In a press conference held on April 10, 2018, McCaffrey said all of the calls (along with several similar emails) had been traced back to China. The callers are using caller ID spoofing technology that allows them to switch out their actual phone number for one with a 212 area code, which covers much of Manhattan. In reality, the calls are being made over the internet, but that makes it difficult to identify their precise origin.
It’s certain, however, that the robocalls are lucrative. Chinese officials, who say this sort of scam has been common for years, report losses of around $1 billion around the world. Similar robocalls have been reported in Los Angeles, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, WNYC reports.
Chinese Consulate Calls Are Illegal
Also clear? Everything the scammers are doing is illegal. Spoofing a caller ID is almost always illegal (it certainly is in this case). Most robocalls are illegal, too. And obviously, stealing someone’s money under false pretenses is illegal. “Neither the real Chinese Consulates, nor the Chinese Embassy, will ever call you to ask for money,” the Federal Trade Commission notes.