Daniel Farber Huang
September 14, 2020
Recently, a Chinese friend of mine working here in the U.S. received a phone call from someone claiming to be with the Washington, DC administrative office of DHL, the international shipping company. DHL is similar to FedEx or UPS and active overseas, including Asia. The “agent” told my friend, “Jolene” that Shanghai customs officials confiscated a package filled with passports and credit cards sent under Jolene’s name.
[I changed my friend’s name to protect her identity (and to send some appreciation to Dolly Parton). This article is pretty long, but that’s because this was a pretty long con. Stay with me to see the play-by-play that fell two days short of robbing Jolene of her life savings.]
Jolene told the DHL agent she did not send any package. The person on the phone suggested it might be identity theft and Jolene should contact the Shanghai police to obtain the equivalent of an affidavit claiming she’s a victim of identity theft and provide it back to DHL. The (fake) DHL agent transferred Jolene to the police station in the ChangNing District, the region where the package was addressed. The local police would have jurisdiction over this identity theft.
A man who identified himself as “Officer Li” answered the phone. Jolene explained (frantically) what happened, and [this is very, very clever] Li told Jolene to look up the phone number for the ChangNing police station (where she believed the DHL agent connected her to) and he would call her back in a few minutes from that same listed number so she can confirm his identity as law enforcement. The fake officer hung up.
Jolene Googled the police station in China and saw their real phone number (+86-21-6290-6290). Meanwhile, Li spoofed the same phone number so it would look legitimate on Jolene’s caller ID, and called her back. Spoofing a phone — pretending to be calling from a different number — is incredibly easy to do and is widely used by scammers as well as telemarketers. Naturally, at that point in her state of fear and possibly panic, Jolene believed she was speaking with the real authorities.
Officer Li/Awful Sir Li (see what I did there) asked Jolene to provide her Chinese National Identity number so he can pull the relevant information from their headquarters. Li said, according to their records, Jolene is a major suspect in the highly-publicized Chinese Zheng Shaodong international money laundering case, which involved around 7,000 suspects and millions of dollars. A decade earlier, Zheng Shaodong was a high ranking public security official responsible for investigating economic crimes and (ironically) convicted for taking over $1 million in bribes. In 2010, the Chinese courts gave him a suspended death sentence, which they reduced to life in prison.
According to written notes Jolene provided for this article, Li said Zheng confessed and identified Jolene as an accomplice who used her personal accounts to help him launder money. Zheng claimed Jolene collected about $14,000 (98,000 Chinese Yaun) in fees. What’s more, Li said, the victims in China confirmed they transferred money into accounts that are under Jolene’s name and are jointly filing a lawsuit against her.
Jolene Panic Mode: 1,000 percent.
Li asked Jolene how many financial accounts she has in total, and the amount of assets in each account. (You can be sure he took good notes at this point in the call.)
“I was lost and desperately trying to defend myself,” Jolene said.
Their phone conversation got interrupted when Li’s superior, “Officer Zhang,” joined the call. Zhang said that, due to the severity of the case, he will be taking over the case directly.
If what just happened took place in the business development group of a typical company, Officer Li would be a low-level sales associate screening a prospect (just another name on a cold call list) to determine the likelihood they might become a potential customer. After getting the details on the amount of money in Jolene’s accounts (her entire life savings, so a material number), Li elevated her up the food chain to a more experienced salesperson who would be be able to reel her in.
Before leaving the call, Li asked for Jolene’s Skype account so the department could contact her more easily (and probably cheaper too).
And here’s one of the thieves’ many clever, cruel manipulations: The officers advised Jolene not to discuss this situation with anyone, including her family, because it would “interfere” with the investigation.
End of Day 1 of Jolene’s Terrible Horrible No Good Day.
The next afternoon, Officer Zhang contacted her on Skype voice. He said he needed to go to another city to execute an arrest and would be handing her case over to Officer Xia, and introduced them together on the call.
Officer Xia asked Jolene to recount previous scenarios where she might have used her identity card. He claimed he wanted to find clues to help her clear her name (what a helpful bastard). He also said the leadership team knew about her situation and should reach a final decision soon.
The next day (Day 3), Xia forwarded Jolene a warrant for her arrest, showing her name and personal information filled in. It also showed her photograph from her National Identification card. Jolene insisted that the warrant was unreasonable(!). Xia said he could try to help her discuss it with his superior directly and maybe they can prioritize her investigation. Apparently, Xia told her, because of the scale of that larger crime with so many victims, the investigation is backed up.
“Thanks to his help, I was able to Skype via video with Qian Sun (the prosecutor)”, Jolene said, in her written statement. (Note her word choice here, that she felt appreciation to the fake officer for connecting her to the fake prosecutor.) On the videocall were two Asian men wearing police uniforms sitting behind an office desk in an empty, nondescript room. The drab background setting was so unimpressive that it looked like an authentic government office.
Every step of the way so far, the fake cops are making Jolene more and more dependent on them for help. She needs to speak with them, she’s desperately waiting to hear from the only people who might make this nightmare go away.
The prosecutor Qian Sun (and also the 4th or 5th person in this scam, depending on whether or not one of them also played the fake DHL representative) agreed to apply for “priority investigation” provided that (drumroll please… here it comes…) Jolene liquidate all her investments and transfer them into her checking account. According to Sun, the Chinese government only has the ability to inquire and investigate bank accounts in its system, not investment accounts.
Even living on American soil, Jolene feared the Chinese government would somehow abduct her, throw a black bag over her head, throw her into an unmarked van, fly her back to China, and throw her in jail. (There was a lot of throwing in her mind as her fear-fueled imagination ran wild). Keep in mind, Zheng Shaodong, the bribe-taking official got life in prison, so Jolene’s terror at being pursued relentlessly by Chinese authorities is understandable, considering all the manipulation she had been subjected to.
Speaking in a telephone interview, Jolene said, “The fear ... was so overwhelming … because I mean my whole life is here (in the U.S.). The consequences, getting arrested and losing everything pretty much, and the impact on my family, it's just beyond imagination. I think that basically [they] deprived me of all the ability to think logically. They really got a grasp on how to get you emotionally.”
So… Jolene liquidated ALL her investment accounts, put the proceeds into her checking account, and waited anxiously for further instructions.
Jolene’s Performance Review So Far...
According to “What You Should Know About the Stages of Grief,” an article in Healthline.com, the five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
“Not everyone will experience all five stages, and you may not go through them in this order,” the article states. “Grief is different for every person, so you may begin coping with loss in the bargaining stage and find yourself in anger or denial next. You may remain for months in one of the five stages but skip others entirely.”
Jolene went through denial (100% correct thing to do). It would have been good if she could have stayed in adamant, violent denial, but the con didn’t allow her to stay there. The con was too well-packaged, too tight to not fall prey to (initially, at least).
Anger? Of course. Someone decided to steal her identity (supposedly) and ruin her life. Who wouldn’t be angry.
Jolene tried bargaining with the nice policemen who were investigating her, trying to rationalize with them to understand and accept her innocence, but to no avail.
Depression? Without question. Alone, warned not to confide in anyone, fearing she would be arrested and thrown into prison in China while awaiting trial, mistakenly connected to a corrupt ex-official serving life in prison.
Acceptance. Jolene liquidated all her assets as directed by the police. So they could continue their investigation, prove her righteous innocence, and someday put the nightmare behind her. Jolene’s acceptance would be her downfall.
That night Jolene spoke with her female friend, “Sam”, and let it all out. Jolene genuinely feared she would be abducted and nobody would know what happened to her. So she gave Sam copies of her house keys and car keys, her parents’ contact information and all the information related to her case.
After getting over her own initial shock, Sam went home and spoke to her husband, “Deigo”, immediately after. Looking at it objectively, their instinct told them the identity theft story made sense but Jolene being told to liquidate her assets made no sense.
Working backwards, they re-Googled the information Jolene provided and found one of the phone numbers flagged on a crowdsourced fraud website as being a scam number. Not surprisingly, discovering that this was all a malicious fairytale provided Jolene immediate relief..
IF Jolene hadn’t confided in her friends, what likely would have happened next would be the police telling Jolene a global law firm has been engaged to hold accounts in escrow while the investigations are ongoing. They likely would have provided authentic-looking PDF documents of authorization letters or other official looking legal documents on falsified letterhead of the major law firm, attesting that they have been engaged by the Chinese government as fiduciary for holding the assets of victims like Jolene safe during the investigation period. The paperwork would have the law firm’s real China address, and probably (fake) signed using the name of one of the firm’s actual partners. With wiring instructions, of course, for where Jolene should deposit her money, including Jolene-specific reference numbers so she can feel comfortable that they won’t lose track of her funds.
Thank goodness the Chinese authorities are being so helpful and understanding, Jolene would be led to think. This nightmare will be over eventually…
As soon as Jolene wired her life savings into the designated account, the thieves would wire the money out to another and it would disappear. Thank you very much, Jolene. What’s more, for a long while Jolene might not even realize her life savings had been stolen, she would just call the “authorities” for updates and given the run around.
To push the con even further, the thieves, if they were brazen enough, could try to continue fleecing her by coming back and saying, say, she needs to pay escrow fees to the lawyers otherwise she’ll get put to the back of the investigation pile or some other persuasive fiction.
Or they could just cut and run, significantly richer than when they started, have a laugh at Jolene’s expense, and move on to the next victim(s).
Had they succeeded, for just a few day’s work, from the thieves’ perspective, this would have been time very well spent.
“I skyped them to let them know that I was aware of the trap and then blacklisted their contact in my Skype account,” Jolene said.
The Play-by-Play Breakdown
In her eye-opening book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It...Every Time, journalist and professional poker player Maria Konnikova breaks down the key steps in a well-crafted con. Jolene’s antagonists played their scheme accordingly. Here’s what played out in 10 stages:
1. The Put-Up. The Put-Up is all about the confidence man (known as the Grifter) selecting us as a victim (known as the Mark): learning what makes us who we are, what we hold dear, what moves us, and what leaves us cold.
Jolene was a Chinese national working in the U.S. in a big company with a good title and with good credentials (all of which can be discovered by browsing her Linkedin and/or other social media profiles). The grifters could easily find her home address, if her neighborhood is affluent or not, and even figure out if she rents or owns. At first glance, even if they were screening thousands of candidates a day, Jolene would make the cut as a person of interest.
2. The Play. The Play is the moment a grifter first hooks us and begins to gain our trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion. Once our emotions have been captured, once the con artist has cased us closely enough to identify what we want, feeling takes over from thinking, at least for the moment.
Jolene didn’t want to go to jail, simple as that.
3. The Rope. The Rope is the alpha and omega of the confidence game: after targeting us as a mark and lowering our defenses through a “bit of fancy emotional footwork,” Konnikova writes, it's time for the actual persuasive pitch. An alpha proposal, increasing the appeal of something, is the more frequent con. The omega proposal decreases resistance from another angle. In the alpha, the grifter does what he or she can to make their proposition, whatever it may be, more attractive. They rev up the fictitious opportunity’s backstory — why something is such a wonderful opportunity, why you (the mark) are the perfect person to do it, how much everyone will gain, and the like. In the omega, you (yes, You, not the grifter) make a request or offer seem so easy as to be a no-brainer — why wouldn't I do this? What do I have to lose? This juxtaposition is called the approach-avoidance model of persuasion: you can convince me of something by making me want to approach it and decreasing any reasons I might have to avoid it.
In Jolene’s situation, the “nice” policemen on the phone were willing to help investigate her claims of innocence in the massive fraud case about to ruin her life. Of course she was innocent, 100% innocent in fact, Jolene would insist. How can she make these people believe her?
4. The Tale. When the Tale is told — that is, we're told how we, personally, will benefit — it's no longer really being told to us. We are the ones who are now doing the telling. A good confidence man has been working his way up to this very moment, the moment when "Too good to be true" turns into "Actually, it makes perfect sense": He convinces the mark to believe “I am exceptional, and I deserve it. It's not too good to be true; it is exactly what I had coming to me. The changes may be less than 1%, but then again, I'm a less than 1% kind of person.”
Jolene knew she was innocent, she just had to wait for others to see so too.
5. The Convincer. The Convincer makes it seem like you're winning and everything is going according to plan. You're getting money on your investment. Your wrinkles are disappearing and your weight is dropping. The horse you bet on, both literal and figurative, is coming in a winner. The Tale made us fully aware of our own exceptional nature, and precisely what now seems to transpire: we are indeed justified in putting our initial trust in the game. No self-respecting con artist is complete fluff. There needs to be something real to anchor the whole thing. Just for a moment, the grifter needs his mark to feel as if he is holding a winning ticket.
Jolene, fortunately, stopped herself before reaching this point by discussing the situation with her friends, who helped recalibrate reality. If she hadn’t, the con would likely have continued as follows:
6. The Breakdown. From the con man's perspective, this is the ideal moment to make a killing: pull the plug just when your mark is at his most convinced. The mark has already tasted victory and lauded himself on his discernment and prowess. He is already hooked. If the grifter lets him keep winning, it doesn't do him any additional good. Everything that goes to the mark, after all, is less for the con man. Instead, what if the grifter now makes the mark lose? At least a bit? In other words, what do we do when reality suddenly doesn't match the expectancy we've built?
The fake cops might tell Jolene that the prosecutor doesn’t believe her innocence and is now investigating her even harder. Whatever the breakdown, Jolene would receive some bad news to make her panic and fear increase dramatically, making her even more desperate to resolve this nightmare.
7. The Send. This is the part of the con where the victim is recommitted, asked to invest increasingly greater money, time and resources into the con artist's scheme.
In Jolene’s case, the con men/fake police might have come back to Jolene and claimed they discovered she other money she’s hiding from them, forcing her to sell other assets and adding the proceeds into her checking account. Or maybe she’ll have to pony up, say, $20,000 for advance legal fees.
8. The Touch. The con finally comes to its fruition and the mark is completely, irrevocably fleeced. The mark has been taken for all she has. The grifter has gotten all that he is after and is ready to disappear from our lives.
Had Jolene wired her life savings into the fake escrow account, the grifters would have won.
9. The Blow-Off. According to Konnikova, once the con man grabs the prize, the mark has to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. The Blow-Off is often the final step of the con, the grifter's smooth disappearance after the game has been played out.
Jolene would suddenly find herself unable to contact the fake police, the Skype number no longer picks up, her increasingly frantic messages are not returned. If she then decided to call the police station’s listed phone number, she would be told by the real police that there’s no Inspectors Li, Zhang or Xia, or prosecutor Sun who work there. (Or maybe people with those names actually do work there but they’re not the imposters Jolene had been speaking to, their own identities had been stolen by the scammers).
10. The Fix. If the mark is not complacent, there's one more step the con man may take: the Fix, when the grifters put off the involvement of law enforcement to prevent marks from making their complaints official.
If the grifters decide not to blow off Jolene, they could easily drag their conversations out for months, maybe years, because investigations take time. Lots of time, they could credibly claim. But don’t worry, Jolene, they’re working on it and it’s looking promising, just be patient...
[Article continued below]
You might also be interested to read:
Article: CyberScam-du-Jour: The Bank of America Call and Text Verification Scam
What to Do if This Happens to You (Yes, YOU!)
If this were a movie, the kickoff to this con would probably be given an overly-dramatic name. Shock and Awe. The 180 (turn the mark upside down). Maybe the Gut Punch. Whatever it would be called, the goal is to throw the target into such a panic that they do, in fact, stop thinking logically. The mark becomes 100% reactive, trying to make sense of a situation that simply doesn’t make sense. Here are some important steps that can save you from becoming a Blown-Off Mark.
Don’t solve your problems alone. There’s strength in numbers. Too many con men, con women, and con persons are well-trained in emotional and psychological manipulation. They don’t even have to be cyberscammers. Think about that one relative you know who sponges off all your other family members, all the time. Moving from one person to the next and then, after exhausting the patience, money or kindness of every family member (which may take months or even years to squeeze everyone), the manipulative family member goes full circle and mooches off the first person again with a new story about turning a new leaf, if only he or she could catch a little break or bit of help. In Jolene’s situation, the absurdity of the story only made sense to an outsider, in this case Sam and Diego.
Google everything, then Google it again. Malcolm Gladwell, the prolific writer and researcher, noted that choking is about thinking too much, panic is about thinking too little. Jolene, like most anyone would do, let emotion lead the way.
In his excellent book, Deep Survival, Who Lives Who Dies & Why / True Stories of Miraculous Endurance & Sudden Death, Laurence Gonzales says that turning fear into focus in the first act of a survivor. At least 75 percent of people caught in a catastrophe either freeze or simply wander in a daze, according to some psychologists. They can’t think, they can’t act correctly. When the United State attacked Nroshime and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, the Japanese noticed the same phenomenon among their survivors. They named it burabura, which means “do-nothing sickness.”
According to Gonzales, the French author, journalist and aviator Saint Exupery (who also wrote the classic children’s book The Little Prince) observed that, in the heat of a crisis, the only thought you can allow yourself concerns your next correct action.
A simple Google search by her more objective friends found the clarity that Jolene missed and could see how things simply didn’t make logical sense. Police don’t tell people to liquidate their assets.
Call a lawyer. If Jolene’s identity had truly been stolen to send passports to China and if someone opened bank accounts in her name to defraud others, legal representation would be incredibly important. Any half-decent attorney would have or should have seen through the con in the first consultation. Certainly, a lawyer should have stopped her from wiring her money to an “escrow” account if the con got that far.
Even if a person’s first lawyer contact isn’t knowledgeable in the subject in question, lawyers refer clients to other lawyers all the time. The first legal contact should be able to direct the potential victim to another lawyer or law firm that can help. If someone doesn’t know any people in the legal profession to ask, they can contact a local firm they find on Google and request an initial phone consultation.
Jolene was warned by the Chinese officials not to discuss her case with anyone but without going into excessive detail, Jolene would have been able to provide a general idea of the problem, then determine if the lawyer she found might be suitable to advise her.
Granted, hiring a lawyer costs money. It might even cost thousands for the initial conversations but in Jolene’s case that cost would have been a fraction of what she was about to be robbed of, a relatively small cost compared to losing her life savings. And even if she wasn’t going to be swindled by the grifters, if this were real you bet she’d want a lawyer on call if the Chinese authorities actually were investigating her.
Jolene said, “I mean, I honestly think that if this happened to me [again], I probably would have fallen into this trap again. Like, I don't know at what juncture would I have chosen to take a different action rather than maybe contacting [my friends] earlier?”
She contacted the real authorities in China, including the ChangNing police to let them know criminals were impersonating them. The police aren’t likely to catch these grifters (let alone even know who they are) but it is worthwhile and important to report these crimes so authorities are aware of the severity, extent, and new variations of cybercrime. And it probably gave her a very small amount of comfort knowing she reported the scammers to real law enforcement authorities.
Jolene, not surprisingly, is more wary of her online activity. She did wonder if there were support groups for people who had experiences like hers, and searched a bit, but then moved on.
Jolene ultimately emerged lucky. Although she managed not to be robbed of all her savings, Jolene liquidated her portfolios in a down stock market and incurred tax implications as well. “Only” selling at a loss and owing the IRS is a perverse silver lining in Jolene’s stormcloud, but she’ll take it. An expensive lesson learned but fortunately not a devastating one.
Jolene wanted to share her story to make the public better informed, in the hope that her expensive lesson learned will be valuable in protecting others.
Be aware, and feel free to share this article if it may protect someone you care about.
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