2016-11-30 08:33:59

Hundreds of fake internet girlfriends have been arrested for defrauding their digital love interests out of millions of yuan.

On Tuesday, state news agency China News Service reported that more than 500 people involved in a 10 million-yuan ($1.45 million) fraud scheme had been detained in Anshan, a city in northeastern China’s Liaoning province.

According to the report, a typical case involved a male member of the gang posing as a young woman online. Using the female persona, the fraudster would befriend potential “dates,” win their trust, and then find ways to extort money from them.

Excuses for borrowing money included paying for travel expenses, needing phone credit, losing train tickets, and helping to support family and friends who were supposedly ill, local news outlet Northern Morning Post reported Monday.

The victims of the Anshan-based criminal ring came from more than 20 provinces across China, according to the same report. The suspects preferred to target people who were farther away from Anshan to make it harder for law enforcement to track their activities.

Liaoning police received their first report of the scam in February, when a man surnamed Huang from Shenzhen, in southern Guangdong province, was cheated out of more than 40,000 yuan ($5,800) after receiving calls from a “nurse” who said his online girlfriend was in the hospital with acute appendicitis. Police officers told media that real-identity registration on online dating sites is often not rigorous enough to protect citizens from this kind of fraud.

Shu Hai, a lawyer at Zhong Lun Law Firm in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that most of the large dating sites in China have registration systems that ask for ID card information, although it can be more difficult to verify the user’s personal information. It’s also easy for criminals to find and use fake or leaked ID numbers due the fact that such information is widely available online.

“Dating sites that want to attract large numbers of users may impose lower barriers for entry,” Shu added. “These sites will be less careful about checking personal information.”

Telecommunication scams have become increasingly prevalent in China in recent years as the use of mobile internet has exploded, and as customers’ personal information has become more easily obtainable. A report by the Internet Society of China estimated that over the past year, netizens suffered a total loss of 91.5 billion yuan due to fraud schemes. Common scams include phishing websites, spam emails, and scams on social networking sites.

The effects of these criminal networks can be devastating. In August, 18-year-old student Xu Yuyu reportedly died of a heart attack after being swindled out of 9,900 yuan in a telephone scam. The money was supposed to pay her first year of university tuition.

The following month, a second-year student, Duan Junke, killed himself in southwestern China’s Yunnan province after handing over 5,000 yuan he had reserved for tuition to phone scammers.

In October, a Sixth Tone journalist wrote about her experience of narrowly avoiding a phone scammer posing as her boss, which shows how easily one’s personal information can be used against them in the hands of the wrong person.

“The key point to dealing with phone fraud is to act fast,” said the lawyer Shu, adding that some local governments have strengthened their response to telecom crime. An anti-telecom fraud center was set up in Shanghai last March, and in just a six-month period, it is estimated to have prevented some 49,000 cases of fraud.

(Header image: A man and a woman play a dancing game during a blind date event in Shanghai, July 18, 2012. Wang Chen/Sixth Tone)