I was deceived by fake Chinese police

by Elaine Chong and Ed Mayne, BBC Trends

BBC A woman in a blue coat stands in front of a tree in a park, looking at the camera.BBC

Helen Young was targeted by scammers posing as Chinese police officers

Chinese people around the world are being targeted by sophisticated scams in which criminals pose as Chinese police. A British woman of Chinese descent told the BBC she handed over all her savings to uniformed scammers over video calls, after which she was given a virtual tour of what appeared to be a police station.

Helen Young still has nightmares about the two weeks she was led to believe she was on China’s most wanted list.

Fraudsters posing as Chinese police manipulated a London-based accountant into believing he was under investigation for a major fraud in his home country.

Helen was presented with a mountain of fabricated evidence implicating her in crimes she knew nothing about.

Later, when fake police threatened to extradite her to a Chinese prison, Helen sent £29,000 of her life’s savings to the police as “bail” in a desperate attempt to stay in the UK.

“I feel a little stupid right now,” she says, “but how could I not know it wasn’t real? It’s so convincing.”

Helen’s story may sound unusual, but there are many similar cases among Chinese immigrants.

Chinese embassies around the world have issued public warnings about police scams, as has the FBI after a number of cases in the U.S. One elderly woman in Los Angeles reportedly handed over $3 million in the belief it would stop her extradition.

The FBI warning reads: "Chinese community in the US: Have you been accused of a crime you didn't commit? Do not share information. Do not send money. Stop contacting them and report them to the FBI at ic3.gov." There is a speech bubble next to the QR code "Contact the FBI".

The FBI and Chinese embassies around the world have issued warnings about police impersonation scams.

These scams typically begin with the target receiving a relatively innocuous phone call. In Helen’s case, a person claiming to be a Chinese customs official told her that they had intercepted an illegal package sent in her name.

Helen hadn’t sent anything, but the caller said she should file a police report if she thought someone had stolen her personal information. She was skeptical, but she didn’t hang up.

“Chinese people like me who were born and raised in China have been taught to be obedient,” she said, “so when the party asks us to do something, or our parents ask us to do something, we rarely say no.”

Helen was transferred to “Officer Fang,” who claimed to be a Shenzhen police officer. When Helen asked for evidence, he suggested a video call. When the call was connected, Helen saw a man in uniform whose face matched the police ID he had shown her.

Officer Phan then used his cell phone to direct her to what appeared to be a fully functioning police station, with several uniformed officers and a desk bearing a large police logo.

“At that moment, all my doubts disappeared, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, but you have to be careful these days, there are a lot of criminals out there,'” Helen says.

As they were talking, Helen heard a message on a loudspeaker in the background telling Officer Fang to take a call about her.

Officer Phan put Helen on hold, and when he returned he was no longer interested in the illicit shipment: he said he had been informed that Helen was suspected of being involved in a large-scale financial fraud.

Image of a woman in a suit jacket holding a phone to her ear facing a group of uniformed and masked Chinese police officers

“I said, ‘That’s nonsense,’ and he said, ‘Nobody’s saying anyone’s guilty, so it’s the evidence that counts.'”

Helen was shown what appeared to be bank statements with large sums of money transferred in her name. Officer Phan told her that if she was innocent, she had to help him catch the real culprit. He made her sign a non-disclosure agreement not to tell anyone about the investigation. Helen was warned that if she did, she would face an additional six months in prison.

“He said, ‘If you tell anyone that you have been questioned by the Chinese police, your life will be in danger.'”

The scammers got Helen to download an app in order to spy on her every move, day and night.

Over the next few days, Helen tried to act normal at work. She spent her evenings working on the personal statement she had been assigned to write, detailing every aspect of her life.

Officer Phan then called to tell her that several suspects were in custody, and he showed her affidavits in which several people had accused her.

Helen was sent a video that appeared to show a male prisoner confessing to police and naming her as his boss in the fraud case.

A man wearing a hood and surgical mask is sitting in a room behind metal bars. There are two computer screens on a desk in front of the bars. The door behind the man is open and a person is standing outside the door.

Helen’s con artists used a personal video confession to trick her into believing she was facing criminal charges.

A closer look at the video shows that the suspect is wearing a large COVID mask, making it impossible to tell if the sounds we hear match his lip movements, and it would be easy to add a fake soundtrack saying Helen’s or other victims’ names.

But for Helen, who believed she was dealing with a real police officer, the effect was devastating: “When they called me that, I felt sick. I knew I was in real trouble.”

When Officer Fan told Helen she would be extradited to China, despite being a British citizen, she believed him.

“He told me, ‘So you have 24 hours to pack your bags and the police will come and take you to the airport.’

Helen was told she could avoid extradition if she paid bail – she was told to transfer £29,000 after her bank statements were sent for inspection.

“I was very sad because I had promised my daughter money to buy her her first apartment,” Helen said.

But a few days later the fake police returned, with Helen ordered to find a further £250,000 or face extradition. “I was fighting for my life. If I went back to China I might never come back.”

When Helen tried to borrow money from a friend, who called her daughter, Helen broke down in tears and told them everything, but not before putting her phone in a kitchen drawer and taking her daughter to the bedroom, where she pulled the duvet over her head so the scammers couldn’t eavesdrop.

Her daughter patiently listened and explained that it was a scam. Helen’s bank eventually refunded her money, but her ordeal could have ended much more direly. “I could barely sleep for two weeks. How can I sleep if someone is monitoring my phone?”

In a sleep-deprived state, she crashed her car twice, the second time completely destroying it. “I didn’t kill anybody, but I could have. This kind of criminal fraud can get people killed.”

Other victims of police scams are pushed to even more extreme ends.

In unusual cases, some Chinese students who could not meet the financial demands of the fake police were persuaded to fake their own kidnappings to demand ransoms from their families.

New South Wales Police Superintendent Joe Doueihi has led a public information campaign warning people about so-called virtual or cyber kidnappings following a series of incidents in Australia.

“Victims are forced to video themselves in a vulnerable position to make it look like they have been kidnapped, are tied up with tomato sauce smeared on their bodies to make them look like they are bleeding, and are crying out to their loved ones for help,” he said.

New South Wales Police: A woman, her face blurred, is seen lying on the floor with her arms behind her back and a rope around her ankles.New South Wales Police

Australian police have issued a warning following a spate of “virtual kidnapping” cases.

The students are then ordered into quarantine while the scammers send the images to their families in China along with a ransom demand.

Victims of fraud may also find themselves being manipulated into helping others scam others.

“The scammers trick their victims into believing they are working for the Chinese government. They send them documents and get them to swear in as Chinese police officers,” Dueihi said.

Victims who may have already given money to the perpetrators are then sent to surveil and blackmail other Chinese international students in Australia, he said.

A screenshot of a male and female police officer in uniform, accompanied by Chinese text and emojis.

The BBC has discovered AI filters being sold online to help scammers pose as police.

Experts believe many of these scams are being perpetrated by Chinese organised crime groups based out of bases in countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese state media have reported that tens of thousands of suspects have been deported to China over the past year.

Awareness of these types of scams is growing, and we spoke to and recorded the conversation with a student in Japan who found himself being targeted by criminals.

He did not want to be named, but provided the recording to the BBC, in which the scammers told him that if he revealed the calls to anyone it would jeopardise the “investigation”. He refused to hand over the money and the scammers stopped pursuing him.

He considers himself lucky to have escaped: “I never thought something like this would happen to me. Be very careful when you get calls from unknown numbers.”

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