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Xiao Chen* was studying in Australia when she received the call.
Initially, she was told, in Mandarin, that she had a parcel from DHL. Then she was transferred to a man who introduced himself as a high-level Chinese police officer. He told her she was in big trouble. She’d been implicated in a transnational financial crime involving a notorious criminal. There was a strong case against her, he said, and if she didn’t cooperate she’d be locked up. He sent her a warrant with her photo on it.
“I was worried and very scared. He said this case is a classified case, so I can’t tell anyone about it,” she told SBS Viceland’s The Feed.
Xiao Chen was told she was now under surveillance, and her every move was being monitored.
When she protested her innocence, the police officer said he could help. But it would cost: $4,000 for an expedited investigation, $90,000 as a kind of security bond, and $250,000 for a civil liability case.
“Every time they made me send money, there was a reason. At the start I wouldn’t understand. They would explain it, and I would pretty much understand. But not everything. I just trusted them, so I did what they said.”
What she didn’t know was that it was all a fabrication, and the man wasn’t a police officer at all.
Xiao Chen had been lured into a sophisticated phone scam that has been targeting Chinese-speakers around the world. In Australia, victims have paid more than $9 million. And that’s just the cases that police know of.
The scam has evolved and victims - sometimes young international students - have been coerced into extraordinary situations. In both NSW and Victoria, some victims have been asked by the scammer to stage their own kidnapping in order to get money from their parents overseas. Victoria Police have released photos that show victims gagged and bound, as if they’ve been kidnapped. But no-one has actually been held against their will. The photos are staged by victims, who then send them to their parents, who then transfer money that victims can then give to the scammer.
Scammers encourage victims to pretend they have been kidnapped and send photos to their parents, who will then transfer money. Source: Victoria Police
An investigation by The Feed has traced the phone scams back to crime syndicates based in Taiwan. The calls can literally be made anywhere - the syndicates arrange for lower-level members to rent properties and set up call centres in other countries in order to exploit jurisdictional boundaries.
Over a period of 10 days, Xiao Chen transferred nearly $500,000 to the so-called police officer and others who were working with him.
When her own money ran out, they coached her on how to lie to her parents back in China to get more. Xiao Chen’s mother thought it was for a security deposit related to her daughter’s visa, and that the money would just sit in the bank. She’d borrowed some of it from family and friends.
But when Xiao Chen dropped out of contact, and the money disappeared from the account, her mother and family knew something was wrong.
Under instruction from the scammer, Xiao Chen had left her house and was awaiting further instruction at a hotel room. She’d been told the case against her had just escalated, and she was in even bigger trouble. Alone and confused, she ignored frantic messages and calls from her parents.
“I really wanted to answer the phone, but it was a kind of “mind control”. It was a psychological control. I didn’t dare answer them...I just grew more nervous and didn’t know what to do.” Right up until the end, she believed she’d been dealing with the police.
After several days, Xiao Chen’s family and the real police were able to locate her using the “find my phone” function on her iPhone.
The first thing they did was reassure her that she wasn’t a criminal - she was a victim.
The Australian Federal Police are investigating the recent phone scam targeting Mandarin speakers, but it’s not the first of its kind.
The call centres have even been located in Australia.
In 2015, the AFP was called to investigate a house in suburban Brisbane.What they found perplexed them.
“The house had been set up like a business, and there was desks and... telephones, there were lots of iPads, lots of chargers and things like that,” recalls Detective Superintendent Glen Fisher.
On the upper level, police found 23 Taiwanese huddled in a bedroom. Their passports, mobile phones and personal belongings were locked away in a separate room on the ground floor.
Police also found documents and recordings that would eventually be used in court to prove that this was a kind of boiler room, where Taiwanese on working holiday visas were being forced to work 10-12 hours a day making scam calls, targeting victims in China.
The call centre managers were arrested and convicted - not for the fraud - but on slavery charges.
The case offers a unique chance to get a glimpse at the inner workings of a phone scam network. Detective Superintendent Glen Fisher says they’re run by organised crime groups who see it as just another source of revenue. And they do their research.
“The extra-territorial conditions that would be enforceable in that country, the ability to extradite and service mutual assistance requests... that's all taken into account by the criminal syndicate when they set these businesses up.”
Tucked away in suburban homes, they can be difficult for law enforcement to uncover. Police were only made aware of the Brisbane call centre after one of the workers ran away and reported it.
To date, there have been no arrests associated with the recent scam call that caught out Xiao Chen and so many others.
Xiao Chen is now wondering how she will ever be able to move on. She feels deeply ashamed and doesn’t know how she will ever repay her family.
It might be cold comfort, but Detective Superintendent Glen Fisher says victims need to consider just who they’ve been duped by.
“I understand that people may feel embarrassed that they've paid money, but these are professional criminals. These are individuals who make a living out of tricking people to take their money, as simple as that”.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.