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CyberScam-du-Jour: Chinese Con Men Pose as Police and DHL to Empty Victim’s Investment Portfolios

Daniel Farber Huang

September 14, 2020

Images of Chinese police vehicle, handcuffs, and DHL logo.
Photos by Macau Photo Agency, Bill Oxford, and Nikita Rud on Unsplash

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, 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.

But then…

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 crowd