“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went on to the University of Southern California or similar well-known universities,” Li says. “Besides that, they all worked at a certain company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect these are fake, generated data.”
(SpaceX didn’t reply to a request from MIT Technology Review to verify the variety of Tsinghua graduates working on the firm.)
This wasn’t the primary time Li had observed what he thought had been pretend LinkedIn accounts. Starting in late 2021, he says, he began seeing profiles with lower than just a few dozen connections—uncommon for actual LinkedIn customers—and with profile photographs that had been at all times handsome women and men, possible stolen from different web sites. Most seemed to be of Chinese ethnicity and to reside within the United States or Canada.
Around the identical time, the phenomenon caught the eye of Grace Yuen, the spokesperson for the Global Anti-Scam Org (GASO), a volunteer group that tracks “pig-butchering scams.” Scammers concerned on this follow, which began as early as 2017 in China, create pretend profiles on social media websites or relationship websites, join with victims, construct digital and sometimes romantic relationships, and ultimately persuade the victims to switch over their property. The scammers themselves got here up with the title “pig butchering,” evaluating the intensive and long-term strategy of gaining victims’ belief to elevating a pig for slaughter.
In current years, as China has cracked down on fraudulent on-line actions, these operations have pivoted to concentrating on folks outdoors China who’re of Chinese descent or communicate Mandarin. GASO was established in July 2021 by one such sufferer, and the group now has almost 70 volunteers on a number of continents.
While these pretend accounts are comparatively new to LinkedIn, they’ve permeated different platforms for a very long time. “Scammers started moving to LinkedIn maybe after dating sites tried to crack down on them, [like] Coffee Meets Bagel, Tinder,” Yuen says.
In sure methods, LinkedIn is a good way for fraudsters to broaden their attain. “You might be already married and you are not on the dating sites, but you probably have a LinkedIn account that you check occasionally,” says Yuen.
A scammer on LinkedIn might attempt to join with somebody via widespread work expertise, a shared hometown, or the sensation of dwelling in another country. Over 60% of the victims who’ve reached out to GASO are Chinese immigrants or have Chinese ancestry, which these actors lean on to evoke nostalgia or a want for companionship. The pretend claims to have graduated from China’s high universities, that are notoriously tough to get into, additionally assist scammers earn respect.