1000 Chinese SpaceX engineers who only existed on LinkedIn

“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went to the University of Southern California or other similar well-known universities,” says Li. “Besides, they all worked for the same company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect this is fake, generated data.”

(SpaceX did not respond to an MIT Technology Review request to confirm the number of Tsinghua alumni employed by the company.)

This wasn’t the first time Lee had spotted what he thought were fake LinkedIn accounts. Beginning in late 2021, he said, he began seeing profiles with fewer than a few dozen contacts — a rarity for real LinkedIn users — and with profile pictures that always featured handsome men and women, likely stolen from other websites. Most of them appear to have been of Chinese ethnicity and lived in the United States or Canada.

Around the same time, the phenomenon came to the attention of Grace Yuen, spokesperson for the Global Anti-Fraud Organization (GASO), a volunteer group that monitors “pig cutting scam“. The scammers involved in this practice, which began back in 2017 in China, create fake social media or dating profiles, contact victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually convince victims to hand over their assets. The name “butchering pigs” was invented by the scammers themselves, comparing the intensive and lengthy process of gaining the trust of victims with raising a pig for slaughter.

In recent years, as China has cracked down on online fraud, these operations have begun to target people outside of China who are of Chinese descent or speak Mandarin Chinese. GASO was formed in July 2021 by one such victim and now has about 70 volunteers across several continents.

While these fake accounts are relatively new to LinkedIn, they have long since infiltrated other platforms. “Scammers started moving to LinkedIn, possibly after dating sites tried to crack down on them. [like] “Coffee meets bagel, Tinder,” Yuen says.

In a way, LinkedIn is a great way for scammers to expand their reach. “You may already be married and don’t visit dating sites, but you probably have a LinkedIn account that you check from time to time,” Yuen says.

A LinkedIn scammer might try to connect with someone through a shared work experience, a shared hometown, or the feeling of living in a foreign country. More than 60% of the victims who approached GASO are Chinese immigrants or have Chinese ancestry, which these actors rely on to evoke nostalgia or a desire to connect. Fake claims of graduation from China’s best universities, which are notoriously difficult to get into, also help scammers gain respect.

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