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What I learned by chatting with Chinese robocallers

Scott Tong Oct 22, 2019
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Every robocall begins with a canned message.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Have you received a Chinese-language robocall lately? Or a hundred of them? Federal authorities say these computer-generated scams, which began targeting American phone lines two years ago, are on the rise again. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to actually take one of these calls — and resist the urge to hang up with gusto — I recorded a few for this story and came away with some observations as to why the bad guys do it, and how they succeed.

“Hello, this is Bank of America.” Two of the Chinese-language calls I took began with this canned message; another claimed to be from UPS. These updated versions of the scheme, claiming to be calls from well-known companies, differ from earlier efforts purportedly dialing from “the Chinese embassy” in the United States. All directed me to press 9 or 0 on the keypad for a live person. Want to know what they sound like?

This female voice from “Bank of America” warned my name was found on illegally sold debit cards found in Shanghai, and that my accounts had been closed.

“Bank of America” caller

This male “UPS” caller (whose accent is Taiwanese, rather than mainland Chinese) suggested my identity had been stolen to enable fraud in, yep, Shanghai, China.

“UPS” caller

This male “Bank of America” voice suggested irregular activity turned up in my account. He said that since I was busy, he’d follow up by phone in two hours.

“Bank of America” caller #2

Each time, the person on the line asked to “confirm” my name, which he or she didn’t have. And then the “operator” proceeded to address me as “Mr. Tong.” Each spun a similar tale: that I had an urgent money problem. Financial identity stolen; name found on illegally sold or shipped debit cards; accounts closed; credit score compromised.

While these calls may sound clumsy or poorly executed, experts in this space suggest they’re well designed, at least from the perspective of the crook. Let’s examine each element of a call.

Anatomy of a Mandarin robocall

  • The prerecorded beginning. Each call begins with a canned message in Chinese, hoping the recipient will push a button and speak with a live operator. No surprise here. These are computer-generated calls that are practically free to make. “It’s really just as simple as getting a server and getting a shady phone company to give you phone service,” Aaron Foss, founder of the anti-scam calling company Nomorobo, told “Marketplace.” “And then blast these calls out, millions of calls every single day.”
  • The familiar caller ID. A proven strategy. Each call that comes in seems to be from a familiar area code. “It’s as easy as putting on a mask,” Foss said. “You set that caller ID to be anything that you want. And it’s really just a couple lines of code. And boom, it looks like the guy down the street is calling.”
  • The fake multinational company. Bank of America. DHL. UPS. Today’s Chinese scammers pose as well-known corporations, which is no accident. “It’s kind of an essential principle of persuasion research,” said Stacey Wood, a psychology professor at Scripps College who studies scams and emotions. “When we see a familiar name, a name that we trust, we tend to find it more credible.”
  • The calm, collected tone of voice. There was no attempt to freak me out, rather a deliberate explanation of my … um … situation. “The cold, businesslike approach can actually be very effective,” Wood said, “because there’s fewer red flags that it’s a scam.”
  • Mentioning the cops. Many analysts assume Mandarin robocallers deliberately target Chinese nationals visiting America, like students or short-term visitors, who may be wary of authority. “People in the United States might not understand the same way, simply because you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Virginia attorney Michael Lau, who himself almost fell for a Chinese scam. “In China, once they bring you in, essentially, you have to prove your innocence. So they will be scared.”

So far, these scams have duped victims out of a lot of money. In New York, more than 20 Chinese immigrants reported losing a total of $2.5 million from the scam in early 2018, according to the New York Police Department. Nationally, more than 350 victims reported a combined loss of more than $40 million between December 2017 and February 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported, noting the average loss was more than $164,000.

Stage your own … kidnapping

In one twist, phone scammers told Chinese-speaking victims in Australia to stage their own kidnappings to come up with the money, according to local fraud investigators.

“They’ve lost huge amounts,” said Monica Vaca of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, which shares jurisdiction over robocall complaints with states and the Federal Communications Commission.

“One person has reported losing his entire life savings, more than $900,000. Other people have reported losing $20,000 to $50,000.”

For those who don’t speak Chinese and are bewildered by these calls, the attempts will likely keep coming.

Foss of Nomorobo said these scams originally targeted Chinese-speaking neighborhoods in the U.S., but are now expanding to all areas. He does not feel a “Do Not Call” list will help.

“They are not real companies,” Foss said. “It would almost be like having a ‘Do Not Murder Me list,’ right? ‘Please Do Not Steal My Money’ list. Right? That’s ridiculous. The criminals are not going to be respecting that.”

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