Chinese Robocalls Bombarding The U.S. Are Part Of An International Phone Scam The Mandarin-language messages are part of a "parcel scam" that falsely accuses Chinese immigrants of money laundering and then extorts them.
NPR logo

Chinese Robocalls Bombarding The U.S. Are Part Of An International Phone Scam

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/609117134/610161979" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Chinese Robocalls Bombarding The U.S. Are Part Of An International Phone Scam

Chinese Robocalls Bombarding The U.S. Are Part Of An International Phone Scam

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/609117134/610161979" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

People who live in places with lots of Chinese immigrants are receiving robocalls that sound like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

CORNISH: A person who doesn't speak Mandarin might probably hang up. But reporter Stephen Nessen of member station WNYC in New York stayed on the line. And he discovered an international extortion scheme.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon here at WNYC, all the office phones began ringing at the same time. On the other end was a robotic voice.

(CROSSTALK)

NESSEN: It says you have a package or document at the Chinese Consulate that might affect your immigration status. Press two to speak with a specialist. So a few Mandarin speakers in the office pressed two.

KATHY TU, BYLINE: I was like, but what is this for, really? What is this for? And then they hung up on me.

NESSEN: That's my colleague Kathy Tu, co-host of the podcast Nancy. I happened to catch newsroom producer Richard Yeh the moment he got the call.

RICHARD YEH, BYLINE: (Speaking Mandarin).

NESSEN: And then it got weirder.

YEH: He said, what do you want? This is Panda Express. (Speaking Mandarin) Panda Express. I said, you called me, something about a message in the consulate in Chinese.

NESSEN: Strange, but as I learned later, people like Yeh and Tu, while they are Mandarin speakers, are not the intended targets of this type of robocall. Neither is the New York Police Department.

DONALD MCCAFFREY: I get them also. In the NYPD building, I get them also.

NESSEN: Officer Donald McCaffrey started getting them several times a day on his work and cellphone. He's investigating the calls and says he first heard about them last December.

MCCAFFREY: There was a Chinese lady, an elderly woman. She's 65. She called to report that someone from the Chinese Consulate basically called and said that she needs to call the Beijing Police Department because she's being investigated for financial crimes over in China.

NESSEN: It was not the Chinese Consulate. It was a scam spoofing the consulate's phone number. McCaffrey says the woman transferred $1.3 million to a Hong Kong bank account. He says 30 cases like this have been reported to the NYPD and estimates $3 million has been lost. The Chinese Consulate in New York says they've reported this scam to the Chinese police but were told it's difficult to track down suspects. Several other Chinese consulates around the country and the embassy in D.C. have posted warnings about this scam. And the U.S. is not alone. People in Australia and New Zealand get the calls. It hit Canada last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ANNIE LINTEAU: Complaints continue to be reported. And the nature of incidents appear to be evolving.

NESSEN: That's Staff Sergeant Annie Linteau of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police speaking at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LINTEAU: The victims are then instructed to isolate themselves. And their family in China are then made to believe that their loved one in Canada has been abducted.

NESSEN: Ben Yates is a cybersecurity expert and lawyer based in Hong Kong. He says these types of calls have been targeting mainland Chinese there for over three years.

BEN YATES: If you're based overseas and you're from mainland China, then you may be concerned about the authorities questioning what you're doing.

NESSEN: He says one reason the scheme has been successful is because it isn't out of the realm of possibility that the Chinese government would be looking into what overseas Chinese are doing.

YATES: Whether it involves transferring money out of China or other aspects of your activities, it could be all kinds of things that the authorities could have an interest in.

NESSEN: He says most people in Hong Kong install an app on their phones to block suspected robocalls. But the mystery remains - who or what is behind this phone scam? The FBI is looking into it. In the meantime, the best advice is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (Speaking Mandarin).

NESSEN: ...Just hang up when you get the call. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.