Phone scams are big business in China: in the first three months of this year citizens were said to have lost nearly Rmb19 billion ($2.92 billion) to grifters, according to the government.
As part of a campaign to counter the fraudsters, the Ministry of Public Security has created an app that identifies dubious calls and messages. Called the ‘National Anti-Fraud Centre’, it sends a message if the user has been contacted from numbers or accounts suspected of fraudulent activity.
Within two weeks of its release, the app had been downloaded over 100 million times, rising to the top of Apple’s App Store ranking in China. But it wasn’t universally welcomed, with complaints that people were being compelled to download it in order to get vaccinated or send their kids to school. Others said that the app was glitchy and that they had been plagued by calls from unknown callers since installing it.
“I went to renew my child’s ID card and I was forced to install this app to get the card. The school is insisting that parents install it and recommend it to others. This is an abuse of public power! Not to mention that the app itself has so many bugs,” one parent rebuked, while others pointed out that the app went into such detail on how scams work that it might as well have been created as a how-to manual for fraudsters.“They even provide a recording of how scam artists speak to people on the phone,” remarked one critic. “Now I know it’s so easy and so lucrative, I might give it a try,” quipped another.
Quite why phone scams are so rampant in China, and Chinese- speaking communities around the world, is an open question. Some claim it is because attitudes to personal privacy are more relaxed and that people are less guarded about sharing personal details over the phone. Others point to the immense authority typically wielded by officials – meaning that the public is more likely to cooperate with people who pose as officials, even if they offer little proof.
In an incredible case in Hong Kong revealed last week a 90 year-old woman paid $32.8 million to fraudsters posing as Chinese public security officials, who convinced her that she was the subject of a money-laundering investigation.
Others say it comes down to the fact that China is an acquaintance-based society where what friends or relatives say matters – if fraudsters can seize on some familial connection people are more willing to disregard other warning signs. Plus rapid social and technological change can be especially disorientating for older people, making them more vulnerable.
In the meantime the Chinese police have deactivated thousands of mobile phone accounts linked to criminal behaviour. But the scammers are turning their focus further afield, with warnings from the authorities in countries including the US and Singapore that Chinese communities should be wary of fraudsters.
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