2017-06-28 07:20:50

Seven alleged phone scammers stood trial on Tuesday on the suspicion that they caused the death of an 18-year-old student in August 2016.

The victim suffered a heart attack after being tricked into transferring all of her savings to the accused. The case spurred the Chinese government to crack down on scammers and implement measures to make the practice more difficult.

During the hearing at the Linyi Intermediate People’s Court in Shandong province, eastern China, the seven defendants were accused of fraud and infringement of citizens’ personal information, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

Last year, Xu graduated from high school and had been accepted into university. Because her family was relatively poor, she was eligible for a student stipend. On Aug. 19, 2016, Xu received a phone call from someone who said he worked at the local finance bureau and informed her that the stipend was ready. He told her to first go to an ATM and transfer 9,900 yuan ($1,450) in college fees.

Xu then waited for the money be transferred back to her account along with her stipend, as the caller had promised, but the transaction never came. Later in the night, she went to the police station with her father to report the case. On the way home, she had a heart attack and died.

During the hearing, prosecutors argued that Xu’s death was a result of being scammed, and a coroner and other experts who testified agreed. “The phone scam made her extremely nervous, sad, and anxious, which caused her death,” Tan Changzhi, deputy head of the local prosecutor’s office, told CCTV.

According to the authorities, the main person behind the scam was 23-year-old Chen Wenhui, who purchased the personal information of more than 100,000 high school graduates in Shandong province in the summer of 2016. Chen told CCTV that he and his cohorts chose students as targets because their information is sold at a relatively lower price. “It costs only 30, 40, 50 cents [per person],” Chen said. “I had asked around. Homeowners’ information, for example, costs 2 or 3 yuan.” The person accused of selling the personal information will be prosecuted in a separate trial.

Chen said that he used to run a small tea business in his hometown in the eastern province of Fujian — an area notorious for phone scams. He married and became the father of two children. He said he got into phone scamming because it “makes a fast buck.”

According to the procuratorate, the defendants started phone scamming in November 2015, posing as employees of a variety of government offices in some 23,000 calls, and swindling recipients out of a total of 560,000 yuan. They used temporary accounts on QQ, a popular chat app, and unregistered SIM cards, a method the authorities said they learned from others.

The court has not yet set a date for when it will announce a verdict.

Following Xu’s death and the public’s reaction, the Chinese government in September 2016 announced a crackdown, reminding people that phone scams — as well as acquiring and selling personal information — are illegal. Numerous scammers have since been arrested, including a group of 113 people earlier this month in Zhejiang province, eastern China, and more than 800 people in Hubei province, central China.

Since December 2016, bank transfers by ATM are only completed after a 24-hour grace period, during which potential scam victims can cancel the transaction.

Nevertheless, phone scammers remain a problem. Media reported earlier this month that more than 50 users of a popular shopping app were scammed out of 880,000 yuan by people pretending to be customer service representatives.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Xu Yuyu’s photograph, university admission letter, and mobile phone are seen in Linyi, Shandong province, Aug. 24, 2016. Zhang Bin/IC)