It was a chilly Thursday afternoon in November when Ace, a 19-year-old from China’s Guangxi province and a software engineering student at Canada’s McMaster University, received the phone call that upended his life.
The man on the other end of the line claimed to be from the Chinese Embassy in Canada. He told Ace, whose name has been changed for the purposes of this story, that security officials at Beijing airport had apprehended a person in possession of a Canadian passport and several stolen credit cards and other personal documents. One of the confiscated credit cards, according to the man on the phone, was under Ace’s name. He also said the Chinese Embassy in Canada had been contacted by Interpol, and that Ace had likely been caught up in a global identify-theft and money-laundering ring.
The man said he would transfer Ace to the Beijing police. Over the phone, a “police officer” then told him Interpol had put out an international arrest warrant for anyone connected to the person purportedly arrested at the airport. Ace pleaded with his interlocutor, telling him he had nothing to do with any criminal activity. However, he was told to immediately stop using his cell phone, his social media accounts and his bank card, and to go into hiding. This, apparently, would give police time to clear his name.
Ace spent two days in a hotel before becoming suspicious. Eventually, he messaged his mother, in China. She was relieved to know that her son was unharmed – someone had called the family home saying that Ace had been kidnapped, and demanded money for his release. Ace, frightened and bewildered, contacted the Chinese Embassy in Canada directly, and discovered that all of it – the Interpol arrest warrant, the money laundering sting – was a lie, part of a complex ruse designed to dupe Chinese nationals studying in Canada.
“I didn’t feel afraid at first because I trusted the criminal, but now I do [feel afraid] because when I analyze this incident, I found that this group is… aiming at students,” said Ace. The scammers “know what we think, what our weaknesses are, and [they] find a way to make us believe them.”
Since the beginning of the fall semester, there have been several incidents of Chinese students in the province of Ontario falling victim to scams similar to the one Ace was caught up in. At least four of the students concerned disappeared for days, triggering massive police search investigations. All were found safe, but police across the province are warning international students – particularly Chinese nationals – to be aware of scams.
“I didn’t feel afraid at first because I trusted the criminal, but now I do feel afraid because when I analyze this incident, I found that this group is… aiming at students”
The circumstances in each case are similar. First, someone pretending to be an official from the Chinese government calls a student and tells them that they must go into hiding or else their family in China will be harmed. They are also told to not contact family or friends via phone or social media. Then, the fraudsters contact the student’s family in China, telling them that their child has been kidnapped, and demanding large sums of money.
Experts say international students are extremely vulnerable to these types of scams.
“International students face more challenges compared to domestic students, like language and cultural challenges. Above all, they’re here on their own,” says Diana Ning, associate director of the international student department at Toronto’s York University. “They don’t have a network of support. When something unexpected happens, they’re young and disconnected so they are vulnerable because they can’t get the right advice.”
According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there are more than 300,000 international students in Canada. Roughly one-third of those students come from China.
Ning said that university communities in Canada could better protect international student populations by communicating with them more effectively.
“From the university’s perspective, we need to really work on building connections with international students”
“From the university’s perspective, we need to really work on building connections with international students. If we send an email in English to 6,000 international students, how many of them read it, understand it? We need to make the connection based on language and based on culture.”
Ning noted that York University is using WeChat, the Chinese social media giant, to warn Chinese students of these types of scams.
When contacted for comment on this story, the Chinese Consulate General in Toronto emailed a statement saying that it “attaches great importance to a series of such cases targeting Chinese citizens, guided and assisted the victim’s family to report to [the] Toronto police department, and requested the police to investigate into the cases, rescue the victim as soon as possible and to crack down on this type of crime.”
The Consulate General also noted that it had “continuously posted and renewed warnings on its website and social media, and forwarded these messages to local Chinese media and Chinese community, in the hope that the relevant information can be read and Chinese people here can keep high alert.”
Even though there is a growing awareness of these scams, and police and universities are attempting to support Chinese students, many in the Chinese community are still uneasy.
“A lot of us are scared. It seems it could happen to anyone,” said Megan, a 20-year-old student from Beijing who also didn’t want her given name published. “Lots of people in China ask me if it is safe in Canada. My response is: ‘hard to say.’”