Ming Xin is a firm believer in the health benefits of herbal therapy. But her family began to worry when the 62-year-old recently decided to stop taking her blood pressure medication in favor of a special tea she had bought online.
“When she felt dizzy the other day and a test showed her systolic blood pressure was 190, she still insisted that a cup of vine extract tea would do her fine,” Ming’s daughter, Bao Wei, told Sixth Tone. Systolic blood pressure above 140 is generally considered unhealthy.
But no matter how hard Bao tried to tell her mother that the tea was no good, the older woman wouldn’t budge. Ming, who lives in the northeastern city of Harbin, had bought the tea from someone who sells medicine on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app. She told Sixth Tone that her friends had recommended the vendor to her.
Bao said many senior citizens are tricked into buying similar products with dubious promises of improved health, either from online con artists or phony pharmaceutical companies that arrange so-called health events for the unsuspecting elderly.
According to Wang Xinliang, a lawyer from Jinan, capital of eastern China’s Shandong province, fake doctors on WeChat are a relatively new phenomenon. Many swindlers who prey on the elderly usually go door to door and leave the area before the more discerning members of the younger generation find out their parents have been tricked. But online scammers can’t hide for long, Wang told Sixth Tone, as WeChat accounts are linked to telephone numbers, which can only be acquired by presenting an ID card. Consequently, the online con artists are relatively easy to track down.
Nevertheless, Wang said, this doesn’t seem to deter the crafty quacks. In July 2016, Wang founded the country’s first nongovernmental anti-fraud and rights-safeguarding center for seniors. During the center’s first six months, it received more than 1,000 complaints from elderly people who had been deceived in one way or another. “In Jinan, the vast majority of old people — including my own mother — have been victims of these scams,” he said.
According to Wang, less than 5 percent of swindled seniors succeed in getting their money back — and that’s precisely why his center focuses on raising awareness.
“Seniors are targeted by scams because they will more easily believe false advertisements and exaggerated claims about the products’ effects,” Wang said. “And they tend to follow trends: Once they see others speaking highly of the products and buying a lot of them, they won’t want to miss out. They’re not aware that these people have been paid to be decoys.”
Wang pointed out that many who have been cheated are empty nesters whose children live far away from their hometowns. Once they are approached by silver-tongued scammers who give them attention and treat them with kindness, they can become emotionally attached and spend money on products they don’t need.
“Older people trust these con artists even more than they trust hospital doctors,” said Bao, who added that her mother refused to reveal how much money she had spent on the vine extract tea she’s been drinking for months now. “But what I do know is that her blood pressure hasn’t been stable since she stopped taking her medicine.”
In a recent report by Party-affiliated newspaper Beijing Youth Daily, a “doctor” on WeChat was revealed to have advertised his products using the photo of a real doctor at an international hospital in Beijing. The fake doctor claimed the medicine he sold could treat varicose veins and hair loss.
With the availability of more than 2,000 health care apps in China, it has become common for people to consult doctors online. What is less common, however, is doctors using WeChat as a portal through which to practice.
Yu Huiju, a pediatrician in Shanghai, said she only gives her personal WeChat account to the families of a select few patients. She offers advice when the children have minor complaints but said she would never prescribe medicine in a personal chat.
“It’s because we’ve established a certain degree of friendship over a long period of time,” Yu said of the patients’ families she communicates with outside of work. “Sometimes they ask me about specific conditions or whether a hospital visit is necessary, but I don’t charge a penny for these conversations.”
Ming, meanwhile, doesn’t think she was scammed to begin with. “The vine extract tea is very useful; it works much better than hospital drugs, most of which have side effects,” she said. “I felt a lot better after I drank the tea.”
As a testament to the tea’s healing properties, Ming recalled a time it even helped her grandchild: “One day when my daughter was not home, I rubbed it into the eczema around the neck of my 5-month-old granddaughter. The next day, it had disappeared.”
(Header image: An elderly man using a mobile phone sits on a bench by the river on the campus of East China Normal University in Shanghai, March 6, 2012. Gao Zheng for Sixth Tone)