29 Apr 2019

Chinese social media scams going unreported in New Zealand

1:58 pm on 29 April 2019

Scams on Chinese social media could be going under-reported as victims don't know where to go for help, or face a language barrier when reporting them, according to NetSafe.

Online crime scene with a finger print left on backlit keyboard with Chinese flag on it

Scams on Chinese social media could be going under-reported in New Zealand. Photo: 123rf

Latest figures show New Zealanders lost $33 million to online scams and fraud last year - a dramatic increase on 2017, when people lost $10 million.

However, fewer than 20 of the 13,000 scams reported to NetSafe came from WeChat, a social media platform popular among the Chinese community, the watchdog for online safety said.

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The owner of Chinese social media app WeChat said it reached more than one billion monthly users last year. Photo: WeChat

WeChat is a cross between Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and PayPal, which allows people to message each other, share photos and transfer money, and some users have been reporting being scammed via the platform.

Auckland woman Nico Guo was one of those who fell victim to one of the traps, and lost hundreds of dollars after scammers approached her on WeChat offering her a cheap deal for one of her favourite live-streaming sites Inke.

Inke is a Chinese-based platform featuring videos made by everyday people, as well as celebrities. Viewers can buy Inke coins to give to their favourite video producers as a type of reward.

After spending over $100,000 on coins, Ms Guo was keen to take up the offer and was directed to another website.

"I checked the website. It was very formal kind of token trading platform, just like Trademe or Taobao [a Chinese online shopping website], looks very professional," she said.

She paid about $200 for the coins she needed, but then was told she needed to pay even more to activate them. So she paid another $800, and then was asked to pay another $2000.

It was at that point she thought something was wrong and went back to the people who made the offer.

"I chatted to both people. They both said it's my fault and kept pushing me to make more top-up, so I stopped talking to them and I tried to get my money back," Ms Guo said.

She reported the scam to the Chinese police, but never got her money back. She said she hadn't thought to report the scam to New Zealand authorities, because the scammers were based in China.

Ms Guo said she should have been more vigilant.

"If I buy those cheap token, there must be something dodge about it. Otherwise, it won't get so cheap," she said.

Martin Cocker from NetSafe said they know scammers were using platforms like WeChat, but they were not getting reports about them.

Martin Cocker, Netsafe NZ

NetSafe CEO Martin Cocker. Photo: Supplied

"NetSafe received 13,000 reports of scams generally last year, but only a small number of those were on WeChat. I think a lot of people who are targeted on that platform are unaware of their options in terms of reporting and seeking assistance in New Zealand," he said.

RNZ was also aware of a man who tried to exchange currency with someone who approached him on WeChat, but never got the money he was promised.

In another scam, a group of mothers bought nappies and milk powder on WeChat, but the seller disappeared after receiving their payment.

Martin Cocker said people should get in touch with NetSafe or the police if they think they've been scammed, though that won't necessarily mean they'll get their money back.

"The truth about scams is that the great majority of people - nearly a hundred percent of the people who are affected by scams, will not get their money back. So prevention is really our only tool at the moment."

More international cooperation to tackle online scams and more inter-country investigations would help combat them, he said.

Police said in a statement that it was harder to investigate scams when the offenders were overseas but if a crime had been committed or a large amount of money is at stake, it is important they know.

The best way to prevent scams is to know how to recognise them - don't reply to e-mails or messages from people you don't recognise, and don't forward hoax e-mails or open attachments, the police said.

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