Fed up in lock down? Looking to make friends online? Need money? Beware. Ruthless individuals are using Tinder to lay honey traps with the intent of committing financial fraud.
I’ve never been to China, or Hong Kong, but have spent a couple of years on a crash course of armchair culture-download, mostly in the form of videos and podcasts.
Having absorbed hundreds of hours of analysis, anecdote, praise and criticism of China, it’s obvious that scams are rife on the mainland, particularly in northern cities.
Whether it’s counterfeit goods, forged banknotes, tea ceremonies, over-priced taxis, fake monks, pickpockets or pretty young ladies with hidden agendas befriending fresh-off-the-boat foreigners, it’s rare to not encounter some kind of deception.
Why Are There So Many Scams in China?
Those that experienced the notorious famine following China’s Great Leap Forward (spanning 3 years but with persistent consequences) tend to have a long-lasting mentality of grabbing and greed.
It is the worst type of short-termism born out of fear from a traumatic period in the nation’s history in which the government attempted to transform the agricultural economy into an industrial one.
Things were particularly bad in the early 1960s; we’re talking forced labour, executions and eventually, cannibalism. The stuff of nightmares.
Decades on, and still feeling the pressure to achieve financial security through outlandish enterprises, millions of people in China lost money as part of the OneCoin ponzi scheme for which 98 people were prosecuted in 2018.
Similarly, police arrested 36 in connection with a fraudulent stock trading group set up in WeChat. These examples are the tip of the iceberg.
Although it’s considered acceptable to dupe outsiders to acquire wealth and provide for the tight-knit family unit, this absolutely cannot be said for all Chinese people.
Decent, law-abiding people are generally embarrassed as it paints their country in a terrible light.
For unscrupulous cheats, the use of unverified online dating app profiles together with newfangled “opportunities” like Forex or cryptocurrency are a match made in heaven.
As you may already know, Tinder is a hotbed for such nonsense because profiles are easily created using stolen photos.
The fraudsters are usually based on the mainland but use a VPN to change the virtual location and artificially place the profile elsewhere. Hong Kong is a commonly chosen destination as it is seen as a desirable, successful, civilised society.
The Pig-Butchering Scam aka Sha Zhu Pan (杀猪盘)
The scammer will “like” thousands of profiles with a view to developing multiple fictitious online relationships.
Smitten by unconditional attention, the typically male targets are eventually encouraged to send money – often thousands of dollars – as part of bogus “guaranteed” investments. Browsing Reddit forums and YouTube comments, you’ll uncover first-hand testimony of money lost.
In the 2021 book Criminal Contagion: How Mafias, Gangsters and Scammers Profit from a Pandemic, authors Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw comment on the ingenuity and adaptability of criminals:
“Although we have spent years studying organised crime issues, nothing lessens our surprise at the ability of criminals to adapt or the resilience of criminal markets and actors. What we have observed with the coronavirus is extraordinary and has renewed our belief in the importance of understanding the changing dynamics of organised crime and developing new responses to it.”
Knowing all this, I headed into Tinder to seek out suspect profiles that were using photos of attractive East Asian women.
How Far Will a Tinder Scammer Go?
I matched with one person claiming to be from Hong Kong. Their distance was of so many thousand kilometres away but sometimes changed to 20km, most likely because of the “Global” or “Passport” settings on Tinder, or just a straight up VPN.
Their bio said “I like to travel, I like to make some sincere and friendly friends, not dating and love.”
We got chatting and “she” claimed to own a beauty salon in Hong Kong as well as a clothing factory in China. Her visit to a UK fashion convention had apparently been cut short because of COVID-19.
It wasn’t long before the subject of WhatsApp came up and we took the conversation on there.
The “Backstop” Story of the Average Tinder Temptress
The name used was Li Zilan. A Facebook profile with the same name and photos was quickly found.
I downloaded the photos and performed a reverse image search, not expecting to find anything because I imagined them to be stolen from Chinese social media – probably an innocent person’s Sina Weibo profile (an equivalent of Twitter).
The Facebook profile stated she worked for the Hong Kong Economic Times, despite the salon/factory story. Odd.
Also, a Russian mobile phone number was used in the About profile.
Furthermore, many photos were date stamped in June, July and August 2020, tagged with locations showing an alleged visit to Germany with friends at the height of COVID-19.
The text messages started every morning around 9am. Once I’d replied, the response came almost immediately, asking lots of questions and indulging me in a way that felt… off.
The conversations were so intense, I muted the chat as the constant “ding” of WhatsApp notifications was irritating.
Still, I played along, exchanging photos and audio voice clips, never divulging anything too personal. One of the voice recordings the scammer sent was of a young softly-spoken female saying “nĭ hăo…” (hello…) followed by some Mandarin I didn’t understand.
Was it actually “her” speaking or a stock voice clip relayed from elsewhere?
They Avoid Having Voice or Video Calls
When I suggested having a voice call to practise my language pronunciation, the scammer was evasive. “Don’t you have work today?”
In the end it only took 7 days of daily text messaging before – as expected – the topic of investment came up. Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!
“Sorry, I’ve just been busy with my investments. My investment today made a profit of $2,390. Perfect” I was told, receiving a screenshot from some online trading platform.
Don’t Waste Too Much Time with These People
At this point boredom had set in and it was time to bring the interactions to a conclusion.
Imagining the person on the other side of this WhatsApp conversation was possibly a proud Chinese mainlander with no problem fleecing foreigners, I made what I hoped would be considered stinging remarks, one of which was aimed at Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jingping.
The Funny Ones
Changing the Tinder settings to “Global” and specifying Simplified Chinese as the language, I actively pursued more fake accounts to prod and test the scammers.
It was funny when they took my sarcastic responses seriously, but sad knowing innocent people are actually falling for their deceptions.
The Women are Often “Real”
For a while, the basic assumption was that these lowlifes are men posing as women.
One scammer, amongst their rambling about “guaranteed 20% monthly investment returns”, sent me photos I supposed were also bogus.
To test my theory, and with persistence, I insisted they take a photo selfie in which they made a specific hand gesture to prove authenticity.
And she did.
Edit: Ok, Chinese people make the “peace” sign in photos all the time. If it was someone else operating the profile, and not the girl in the pic, they could indeed have ready access to a stolen photo of some innocent person making this gesture. But it’s still all a scam, so don’t get too hung up on this detail.
Summary: Don’t Mix Business with Pleasure, Be on Guard
Some of the profiles I matched with were not scammers. I was certain they were but was surprised to find normal, nice people. Who knew?!
They had real Instagram, Facebook and TikTok accounts, with actual content and interactions, not the usual sock puppet crap.
I matched with a schoolteacher from Chongqing – yes, that’s the China mainland – and we exchanged Skype details where we have text message conversations mostly about Mandarin.
A few women initiated video calls in which we discussed anything from language, culture, hobbies, politics and the virus situation to relationship goals.
But Tinder is not the place to do business – ever.
Research on Tinder crypto/forex scams turn up reports of WhatsApp conversations lasting months before the scammer brings up the topic of investments, by which time the victim had fully bought into the idea of making quick money.
Photos of pretty people is apparently all it takes for a situation to escalate into anything from a minor shakedown to financial devastation. Don’t be “The One” who falls for it.
Update: October 2021
A person introduced themselves in the comments section of this article in May 2021. It was the beginning of many duplicitous WhatsApp conversations now identifiable as an investment fraud stolen funds recovery scam.