The authorities are warning anyone with a cellphone not to fall for calls from the "Chinese consulate" demanding payments. And pretty much everyone is being hit, even people who aren't Chinese: "I get them also," Officer Donald McCaffrey of the Queens Grand Larceny Division told WNYC. "I have an NYPD department cell phone and I get them on the cell phones also. It is out of control."
According to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office, "Some consumers reported receiving calls or messages instructing them to pick up a package, while others received threats urging them to provide information to avoid being in trouble with the Chinese Consulate. Several consumers were led to believe that if they did not offer up information or pay a fine they would suffer negative consequences, including arrest upon traveling to China. In order to resolve the matter, the scammers asked consumers for their bank or credit card information or demanded that they make a bank transfer to the consulate."
The calls also sometimes have a caller ID with the Chinese Consulate's number, which has been "spoofed."
Never, ever, ever send money over the phone (or Moneygram) to a stranger who is calling. Many people have been swindled, especially as the scammers have also created elaborate fake consulate websites. Earlier this month, The Sing Tao Daily reported, "Since December, 21 Chinese immigrants have fallen into the trap, and they lost $2.5 million in total."
McCaffrey also told the newspaper that most of the victims, whose ages ranged from 24-68, were senior citizens (and scammers love to target them) and many were in the 109th Precinct, though others were from Manhattan and Brooklyn.
WNYC reports that the scam comes from mainland China, where this has been established for years:
Once the scammers get a Chinese speaker on the line, they often carry out what's known as a "parcel scam." That's where the caller pretends to be from a courier company and claims that a parcel addressed to the victim is connected to a criminal case. The phone call is then transferred to a supposed police officer who closes the con by telling the victim it's a money laundering issue and if they transfer money to a Hong Kong bank account, police will investigate and resolve the case.
Hong Kong-based lawyer Ben Yates, who specializes in cyber security, explained, "The reason it works is people from mainland China, who are using shopping platforms from China, are vulnerable to those type of accusations that there's something wrong with what you're doing, you're not entitled to make that type of transaction. It plays on people's fears...We’ve really seen this problem growing and growing here in Hong Kong."
It's gotten to the point where the Chinese Consulate in NYC has had to warn the public. However, some scammers gave a phone number that, according to Schneiderman's office, "rerouted consumers to a 911 emergency call center in Polk County, Arkansas. Beginning [Wednesday] morning, the call center received 500 calls from New Yorkers targeted by the scam. Fortunately, none of the consumers who reported receiving this call paid the scammers any money."
If you receive a call like this, contact the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP or file a complaint online.