It was billed as a successful peer-to-peer lending company. Instead, police say, online lender Ezubao used fake business listings to take in about 50 billion yuan ($7.6 billion) from nearly 1 million people who thought they would get a 14 percent return.
More than 20 people who are suspected of playing major roles in Ezubao's fraud were arrested in January. One month earlier, authorities froze the company's operations, setting off a panic among investors in the massive Chinese peer-to-peer lender.
The case is the largest fraud ever reported in China. If it had occurred in the U.S., it would rank behind only the $17 billion in investments that Bernie Madoff stole, and narrowly ahead of the $7.2 billion fraud perpetrated by Robert Allen Stanford.
According to local media, some businesses had no idea they were touted as investment opportunities by Ezubao, and in a type of corporate identity theft, they say their business and tax information was stolen.
State news agency Xinhua spoke to high-ranking employees who provided more details:
"Ezubao was nothing but a Ponzi scheme, according Zhang Min, president of Yucheng Global, parent company of Ezubao, who claims senior executives were fully aware of the nature of the business. She is one of 21 suspects arrested on Jan. 14."
" 'To my knowledge, 95 percent of investment projects on Ezubao were fake,' said Yong Lei, a senior manager with the company's branch in east China's Anhui Province. His department was in charge of 'filling in details of investment projects and promoting them on online.' "
"According to Zhang Min, about 80 company executives earned annual salaries above 1 million yuan. In November 2015 alone, the company paid a salary bill of 800 million yuan. Zhang herself received a bonus of 550 million yuan cash, together with a villa, jewelry and cars. A large amount went on advertising and promotion of the company."