Shadowy Phone Scams Are Becoming the Latest Front in China-Taiwan Tensions

Shadowy Phone Scams Are Becoming the Latest Front in China-Taiwan Tensions
A computer display shows a visualization of phishing and fraudulent phone calls across China during the 4th China Internet Security Conference, Beijing, Aug. 16, 2016 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

TAIPEI, Taiwan—In early May 2016, a police raid on a suspected money-laundering operation in the Taiwanese city of Taichung instead uncovered a large and wide-ranging telecommunications scam. Based in the Dominican Republic, the operation spanned the world, stretching from Taiwan to China and the United States. According to Capt. Lee Chi-shun, an investigator with the Criminal Investigation Bureau of Taiwan’s National Police Administration who was heavily involved in the case, the small shop raided by local police turned out to be a data center where money that had been fleeced from victims of telecom fraud was transferred onward to bank accounts both in and out of Taiwan. Police discovered remittance receipts and other evidence that not only identified known Taiwanese victims of telecom fraud, but also bank accounts in the United States where the stolen money was ending up. Those bank accounts were tied to a 45-year-old Taiwanese man, Huang, known to Taiwanese police as a petty criminal with legal residency in the United States and a passport from the Dominican Republic.

The scams referred to by the local press as “telecom fraud” involve a caller purporting to be a government agent or other authority figure who threatens or cajoles victims into wiring huge sums of money. According to police officials, these scams are proliferating around the world, and many see the handiwork of Taiwanese masterminds on the lookout for easy scores. Taking advantage of declining costs for long-distance phone calls and voice-over-internet technologies, as well as relatively open borders for the holders of Taiwanese passports, Taiwanese fraudsters have taken their business model global over the past decade, operating in such far-flung locales as Kenya, Croatia or, in this case, Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. Taiwanese telecom fraud masterminds are even alleged to have set up call centers in India manned by American-sounding Indians who pretend to be Internal Revenue Service agents. The scammers target unsuspecting Americans and convince them to transfer large sums of money to avoid tax prosecution.

Listen to Tim Ferry discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 15:42.

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