What's behind all those Chinese-speaking robocalls

Robocall scams have found new prey. The latest aim at the Chinese immigrant population by preying on their fears about their status in the U.S.

English speakers who get the calls have no idea what's being said. But Mandarin speakers who answer would hear news that their immigration status may be in jeopardy.

The scam goes something like this: A Mandarin speaker tells the individual that this call is from the Chinese consulate. The person is told the consulate has an important document that must be picked up. That document could affect her status in the U.S. She should press any key to get more information.

After pressing a key, a live scammer comes on the line, and the individual is told she has been connected to anything from money laundering to tax fraud or other crimes. To resolve the situation, money must be wired to a Hong Kong bank.

"The scam calls are effective because they play on people's fears over matters such as immigration status and investigations by Mainland Chinese authorities," said Ben Yates, a Hong Kong-based lawyer specializing in cybersecurity, data protection and fraud for the international law firm RPC. "They can also be highly sophisticated, often using fake official documents, stolen data and information gleaned from social media to persuade the victim that the call is genuine."

Setting up the automated scams is cheap and easy to orchestrate, Yates said. The calls became widespread in Hong Kong about three years ago, he added. And they've been reported to officials in Canada, New Zealand and Australia as well.

"Given the ease with which calls can now be made and messages sent across borders, it's not surprising that the scammers are now targeting Chinese people based overseas," Yates said.

The Federal Trade Commission and the police departments in New York and San Francisco have issued warnings about the calls. So has Canada and the Chinese embassy in Australia and the Chinese consulate in New York.

But while many people are aware of robocall cons, enough individuals keep taking the bait so that the scammers keep calling, said Alex Quilici, CEO of Youmail, which provides cloud-based communication services design to stop robocalls.

"Spam is increasing because it's become cheaper and easier to make robocalls, and the scams work," Quilici said.

In New York alone, 21 Chinese immigrants have paid out at least $2.5 million since December, according to the New York Police Department. Victims range in age from 21 to 65, and each person lost between $1,800 and $1.4 million. Chinese are the third-largest foreign-born U.S. group behind Mexicans and Indians, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tracks the movement of people worldwide.

The calls come at a time when the Trump administration is stepping up immigration enforcement efforts, including a policy that would separate children from their parents in an effort to fight illegal immigration.

Calls could be coming from anywhere in the world, although the phone number may appear to be local or even the number of the Chinese consulate. That's done through a method called ID spoofing, which uses technology to provide fake phone number identification, according to the FTC.  Because the calls often originate outside the U.S., they don't have to comply with the agency's Do Not Call Registry. The scams in Mandarin target areas with large Chinese populations such as New York and San Francisco.

The numbers of robocalls in general throughout the U.S. are at record levels, according to Youmail's Robocall Index, which was tracked robocalls since 2015. In April alone, Americans received 3.36 billion robocalls. That's 34 percent higher than April of 2017 and represents about 112 million calls each day in April, according to YouMail.

The federal government has stepped up its efforts to control robocalls. Both the U.S. Senate and House held hearings on the issue in the past month. The Federal Communications Commission has leveled its highest ever robocall fine to Florida resident Adrian Abramovich. He was fined $120 million for allegedly making nearly 100 million robocalls in just three months.

The following steps to protect against robocall scams are offered by Hiya, which provides caller ID information to help consumers identify incoming calls and block unwanted ones:

  • The Chinese consulates and embassy will never call you to ask for money or payment over the phone
  • Never share your Social Security number, bank or credit card number, or other sensitive information over the phone, email or social media
  • If you receive an unexpected call requesting you send money or payments, hang up immediately 
  • If you've been a victim or have received this type of call, report it to the FTC immediately