A court in Beijing handed down 85 lengthy prison sentences for telephone fraud on Thursday.
Forty-four of the defendants hail from Taiwan, including the two who received the harshest 15-year sentences. The cases are part of a massive wave of telephone scams sweeping China, with tens of millions of dollars stolen.
“Scores of Taiwanese have been arrested around the world over the past two years in connection with telecoms fraud scams targeting Chinese nationals,” the Associated Press notes. “Countries including Malaysia, Cambodia, and Kenya have deported Taiwanese suspects to China, in deference to Beijing, which views Taiwan as its own territory, despite Taiwan’s objections.”
On Monday, China expressed appreciation for a Spanish court approving a request for the extradition of 121 Taiwanese to China. The individuals in question were accused of working with Spanish criminal gangs that used telephone scams to swindle Chinese citizens. Spanish and Chinese law enforcement worked together for a year investigating the case.
The phone scams were quite elaborate, beginning with the fraudsters pretending to be friends or distant relatives of the marks calling to warn them about telephone scams. In the later stages of these long cons, the fraudsters pretended to be police officers investigating telephone scams and tricked the marks into putting their money into secure bank accounts that were actually controlled by the gangs.
Taiwan objected to the Spanish court’s decision and asked for the suspects to be returned to Taiwan instead of China in the name of “nationality, proportionality, and humanity.” The Spanish court rejected this request, noting that Spain has an extradition treaty with China but has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
As one might gather from these reports, phone scams are a major concern in China, accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud. Victims have ranged from individuals to high-powered financial executives. Phone scams are extremely effective in China because people are terrified of the all-powerful authoritarian government and accustomed to bureaucratic mistakes.
Scammers frequently pretend to be police investigating a crime – often phone scams, as in the case that came before the Spanish court – or government functionaries attempting to resolve paperwork errors. Some scams are built upon problems with package delivery because Chinese citizens are accustomed to complex and error-prone mail systems. Chinese officials claim that many victims of these scams are driven to commit suicide by despair or embarrassment.
The BBC reports Chinese officials claim to have arrested a total of 7,700 suspects for telecom fraud, 4,600 of them Taiwanese, over the past seven years. The crackdown began with willing participation from Taipei, but, lately, the Taiwanese government has grown uncomfortable with China’s aggressive extradition requests, which Taiwan characterizes as “extrajudicial abduction.”
Taiwan is also concerned with China using the wave of telephone fraud as a political weapon to embarrass Taiwan. China has accused the Taiwanese government of excessive leniency toward its nationals when they are caught victimizing mainland Chinese with telephone fraud.
A large portion of fake police officer scams are directed at young people. In one recent case, two Hong Kong teenagers were contacted by a fraudster pretending to be a police officer who informed them they were under suspicion in a money-laundering investigation. The victims were intimidated into surrendering their cash and jewelry to a woman who turned out to be a 21-year-old waitress working on commission as a “money collector” for the telephone scam operation.
Some of these scams are directed at Chinese people living abroad. Asia Times reported in November on several Chinese students in Canada who have been targeted by scammers who claimed to be Chinese security officials.
Some involved convincing the victims to switch off their phones, terminate social media accounts and credit cards, and live in hotels incommunicado while they were supposedly under investigation, at which point the scammers would contact the victims’ families, claim their children had been kidnapped, and demand ransom payments. In other words, the phone scammers tricked these Chinese students into effectively kidnapping themselves. Some of the victims were only found after intensive searches by Canadian police.
“They know what we think, what our weaknesses are, and find a way to make us believe them,” said one of the victims.