Lonely and poorly informed, China’s elderly become sitting duck for scams evoking patriotism, health miracles

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/23 18:13:39

○ Appeals to patriotism are often used to swindle seniors

○ Many seniors are vulnerable to scams because the swindlers offer them a sense of purpose or emotional satisfaction

○ Helping elderly people avoid scams needs the joint efforts of society and their family members

An elderly man walks in front of Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium where hundreds of elderly previously gathered after being lied to by scammers. Photo: CFP

Li made a deal with his dad after learning that the senior citizen had paid to attend a "charity conference" at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium in the hope of receiving a big cash reward.

The contract they signed on April 22 said that if he got the 50,000 yuan ($7,257) he had been promised, Li would not interfere with his business anymore. But if it turned out to be a scam, he would have to delete all the related contacts and give up on such schemes.

Li's suspicions turned out to be well-grounded. His elderly father was just one of hundreds of seniors who traveled to the capital - some of them crossing the country - only to find that their dreams were only in their head after the police confirmed that they had been scammed on April 23.

On April 21, these seniors all got a message on instant messaging app WeChat saying that a 200,000-people meeting would be held at the Bird's Nest to "unfreeze a national fund" and all those who pay a small fee to attend will each get 50,000 yuan as a reward.

Even though the police announced that the "national fund" was just a rumor and that suspected scammers had been arrested a day before the "conference," still many senior citizens refused to trust the authorities, some even believing that "spies" had destroyed their hopes. Some even threatened to cut relations with their worried children who came to drag them home.

Li found it hard to convince his father that he had been scammed. In the end, he decided to take control of his father's pocket money together with his mother, in case it falls into the hands of crooks.

This Bird's Nest incident infuriated the seniors' children, many of whom did all they could to warn their parents.

From lucrative investment opportunities to miraculous healthcare products, there are many traps laid for senior citizens, which has become a serious social concern as China's population grays.


Well-tried tricks

Like Li, Sarah Yao in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province is anxious about her mother too. Though her mother was lucky enough to avoid the Bird's Nest swindle, she has fallen victim to several similar scams.

Yao finds it impossible to talk sense into her mother when it comes to such swindles. As Yao revealed, her mother doesn't question low-investment-but-high-yield schemes she is told about, particularly those that cloak themselves in the guise of patriotism.

Once, the WeChat groups of which Yao's mother is a member asked the seniors to invest money in "Guofubao," a variant on the Chinese name of popular payment platform Alipay in which the Chinese word guo, which means "country," has been inserted. The scammer claimed that Guofubao is needed because Alipay is "controlled by Japanese," and that investors would get big returns.

Yao quarreled with her mother several times and repeatedly showed her the truth, but she refused to listen and the daughter and mother almost became enemies.

Appeals to patriotism are regularly used to swindle seniors, who were often given thoroughly nationalist educations and therefore have strong emotions when it comes to matters related to their country.

As in the Bird's Nest scam, the seniors who are "lucky" enough to get into the WeChat groups are exposed to all kinds of "profitable" financial projects about "unfreezing national capital," "poverty-reduction projects" or "unbinding the US dollar," that are "initiated by the government or the State Council" and aim to "profit the country and the people."

The people who run these WeChat groups claim to be the "managers of national funds." They claim that the country has stored huge fortunes at home or overseas and they are to unfreeze the capital for the people, luring the members to hand in "seed money" to start the project.

As part of the brainwashing process, everyone is told to make the background of their profile picture red and to pose in a formal outfit. They virtually "raise the national flag" every morning. In the chat group, swindlers provide "lessons," send forged pictures of officials and fake official documents to create the impression of authenticity.

"In swindles made in the name of patriotism, the seniors see themselves as contributing to national rejuvenation, which makes them more easily swindled," said Liu Hongchen, vice secretary-general for the China Aging Development Foundation.

 An elderly woman presents the amulets she bought from a swindler. Photo: IC

Playing the friendly card

Compared to fake high-yield investments, swindles involving healthcare reach a much larger population. Even though dozens of reports have exposed such scams, there seems to be a never ending supply of senior citizens vulnerable to these crooks.

It took Wang Ying from East China's Anhui Province years to realize that the 5,000-yuan jade mat she bought is just an electric blanket, without the miraculous curative effects the salesmen boasted about, though she still finds this hard to admit it in front of her family.

Seven years ago, Wang's neighbor invited her to experience the effect of one such jade mat in a "therapy room." At that time, she had just gone through surgery and was paying special attention to all kinds of healthcare methods. The salesman in the therapy room was determined to sell her the jade mat, making outlandish claims about its healing properties.

"Every time she went there, they treated her like a queen, serving her water, chatting with her. Their affable attitude persisted for a year, and then they made it," said Wang's husband. He and his daughters tried to prevent her from handing over her savings, but only succeeded in dissuading her from buying a "jade bed" for 20,000 yuan.

"They will stick to you like flies as long as you show any concern for your health or have any disease," the man added. "She believed such ridiculous thing! Now the mat serves no more purpose than an electric blanket."

Many families with seniors have had similar fights. Zhao Fang, who is in her 60s, once made her son buy a machine that runs a mild electric current through the body for around 30,000 yuan because the salesman who called her "auntie" told her that it could cure her high blood pressure and back ache.

The mother and son had a major fight after the son said bluntly that the machine was "just dangerous." For a long time Zhao felt the salesman was more filial than her own son.

"They don't listen. They feel that their family members are all fools and they'd rather believe those strangers even if they say the earth is square," Yao said of her own experience.

A recent news report revealed that a 75-year-old woman surnamed Liu spends over 100,000 yuan a year on fake healthcare products.  Liu, feeling lonely, frequently attended all kinds of lectures that market snake oil to senior citizens.

"The lecturer knelt on the ground and called us mom and dad, moving us to tears. What can I do but buy?" Liu told news platform rednet.cn. Liu confessed that sometimes she knew she was being swindled but would not refuse, just because she longed for someone to talk to.

As Liu Hongchen pointed out, besides their lack of information, many senior citizens, particularly those who live alone, have their desire for care abused by swindlers.

"While some elderly are ignored at home, the salesmen and saleswomen are calling them mom and dad affably and they provide warmth to these elderly by calling them to show concern for their health and comfort every day," he said. "What they buy are not healthcare products, but the emotional satisfaction."

A serious matter

While some keep fighting with their parents, others have given up. Many netizens have written online that they let their parents "pay for their fun as long as they enjoy themselves."

But other people say that it's not the loss of cash that they worry about, but the potential impact on their parents' health from taking untested, unregulated medicines sold by scammers and correspondingly not trusting real doctors and hospitals.

Yao said her mother's view of medicine is totally twisted right now because of the influence of swindlers and their WeChat public accounts.

"She takes all kinds of folk prescriptions, and even drinks her own urine," complained Yao. "She believes that folk remedies can cure serious diseases and that hospitals all only cheat money out of patients. It is this view that worries me the most. "

This problem seems set to grow as China's senior population gets increasingly large. As statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics show, by 2016, the population of people above 60 had reached 230 million, 16.7 percent of the whole population of China. What will happen to these elderly has become a social concern.

Liu Hongchen said that how to prevent senior citizens from being swindled urgently requires more attention from society.

"After retirement, the elderly mostly live a boring and lonely life. To some, whether they can actually get the 50,000 yuan might not be so important. To some, it is more important that they could travel to the capital, make new friends and have fun," he said.

"On the one hand, they are receiving false information from unreliable channels. On the other, they are so lonely that they are eager to jump into the traps set by swindlers," said Liu Hongchen. "We should reflect why they'd rather trust swindlers instead of their own children."

Besides spreading anti-fraud knowledge among senior citizens, it is equally important for their children and even society to show them more care, as Liu Hongchen suggested.

"Given the sheer numbers of swindlers, it is a job that needs the joint efforts of the government, communities, NGOs, and family members," he added.

Newspaper headline: Snake oil for seniors

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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