Marriage scams abound in China amid prevalent anxiety to tie the knot

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/27 18:53:27

Critics point to irregularities of matchmaking businesses

Recent bankruptcy and suicide of an entrepreneur after being divorced sparked discussions on marriage fraud

Dating websites are blamed for not verifying users' profiles

Experts say more Chinese are using pre-nuptials to figure out their finances in case of a divorce

A man and a woman participate in a matchmaking event in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Photo: VCG

In the early morning hours of September 7, Su Xiangmao, a 37-year-old tech entrepreneur and multimillionaire, opened the window of his 15th-floor apartment in Beijing's Haidian district and jumped. It was ruled a suicide by authorities, but some also consider it his final act of revenge. Just before his death, Su left digital suicide notes on social network Google Plus and Sina Weibo accusing his ex-wife, Zhai Xinxin, of draining his money.

He also left a disturbing welcoming message on WePhone, an app he founded that allows users to make international phone calls at low rates. "Company owner is forced to death by his evil wife Zhai Xinxin, and the app will stop working," the message said, which also included Zhai's phone number and her national ID information.

According to Su's death note, he and Zhai, both VIP members of a dating website with so-called "verified" personal profiles, were introduced through the site in late March. In the four months that followed, Su spent 13 million yuan ($1.96 million) on Zhai, including buying her a Tesla Model X, a seaside apartment in Sanya (South China's Hainan Province), cash gifts and other luxuries.

The couple married in June, but divorced just one month later, in July, with Su agreeing to pay Zhai 10 million yuan as part of their divorce settlement. Prior to his death, Su was nearing the official deadline for paying the remaining 3.4 million yuan of his settlement with Zhai. "My cash flow is broken. I'm in despair," he wrote.

Su also accused Zhai of being "deceptive and manipulative." Just one day before they planned to marry, Zhai revealed to her fiancee that she had been married and divorced once, even though her dating website profile said she had never married. When Su asked to see her divorce documents, Zhai told him to first pay her 880,000 yuan, as the document is "private."

The entrepreneur's dramatic death sparked heated discussion on Chinese social media. Many Internet vigilantes conducted what is known as a "human flesh search" on Zhai in an attempt to prove she was a "professional marriage-for-money predator." Other anonymous netizens claimed that they too "used to be Zhai's prey."

Both sides have hired lawyers. Zhang Qihuai, a lawyer representing Su's family, told media that the case is reflective of China's changing attitude on marriage. "Criminal cases and disputes arising from marriages are on the rise. People should marry with caution and legal awareness, rather than just love," he told China National Radio.

Eleven days after Su's death, new guidelines drafted by China's Communist Youth League, Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National Health and Family Planning Commission, were introduced to intensify efforts to clean up China's matchmaking service industry.

The new regulations crack down on illegal practices often utilized by for-profit matchmaking sites, such as knowingly pairing users with hired men and women posing as attractive singletons. It also says relevant government organizations are pushing ahead with real-name registration for clients on online dating platforms.

Not okay, Cupid!

After Su's death,, the matchmaking website he used to meet Zhai, released a statement acknowledging that both Su and Zhai were VIP members and that their personal profiles had been "verified."

Such VIP services usually target wealthy clients such as Su, who must pay up to 20,000 yuan just for six matches. Despite paying what the average person might consider a preposterous matchmaking fee, still failed to properly verify Zhai's marital status as a divorcee. This oversight may have indirectly lead to their divorce.

In recent years, many popular Chinese dating websites have taken great strides to improve the authenticity of their members through "real-name registration." Only users who register with their national ID or mobile phone number can contact other members.

However, most profile information can still be altered or outright invented quite easily. The Global Times reporter registered on a local dating site with an authentic China ID, but was still able to easily fake all of her stats, such as education, employment, height and relationship status.

In addition, VIP dating accounts can now be bought on the black market without the user having to provide their ID. Real-name accounts can be bought and/or sold for only several yuan. A reporter from China Youth Daily contacted a dating profile vendor, who told him that each account cost only 2 to 7 yuan depending on the platform. The reporter needed only provide two photos (which could be grabbed off the Internet).

The rest of his profile information was faked and took less than 10 minutes to get "verified" by the dating website administrators. The ease of setting up a fake "verified" dating profile has led to a proliferation of fraudsters and scammers who prey on lonely men and women, usually in an attempt to siphon money or property from them after gaining their trust.

Chen Tian (pseudonym), a Chinese female dating website user, once nearly fell prey to a scammer after chatting with a foreign man who claimed to be an engineer working at an offshore oil rig. The two never met in real life, as the man said he was always at sea. After chatting for one month, the engineer finally asked Chen to "help him with his visa application," by using her property as a warrant.

Fortunately, Chen was clever enough to realize something wasn't right. "I searched for keywords 'offshore oil platform + dating website' and found that, in fact, this is a classic dating scam."

Bride price

Common dating scams, such as young men who bilk older, desperate women for cash or pretty women who convince older wealthy men to take them out on extravagant dates, can usually be avoided by vigilant users.

However, marriage scams are harder to detect - and define legally - especially as Chinese marriages are traditionally intertwined with money, property and material possessions. Out of the 2,532 lawsuits in China filed against marriage scammers by the end of June (whose court documents are open to public), 90 percent of all plaintiffs argued that their dowry or bride price had been swindled through marriage, according to China Judgments Online, an online database of the Supreme People's Court. Others said they were swindled out of the deposit they paid for properties and jewelry for their new spouses. However, only 25 cases were judged as marriage scams and ruled in the plaintiff's favor. Most were dismissed due to insufficient evidence.

Some marriage scams are relatively easy to detect. For example, between 2015 and 2017, a divorced woman in rural Huainan, East China's Anhui Province, instructed her 14-year-old daughter to marry seven different men seven different times. The teenaged bride (with her mother's guidance) swindled 500,000 yuan from the men before finally being exposed by four of her ex-husbands who met online after one man got suspicious and checked his wife's phone.

But not all scams are this obvious. Many cases involve rushed marriage decisions, regretful couples and accusations that are difficult to prove. Shu Xin, director of the China Marital Family Work Association and founder of Weiqing marriage counseling, says that, in Su's case, all the millions he spent on Zhai was entirely voluntary.

Thus it would have been quite difficult, if not impossible, for him to sue her for fraud. Nor was their marriage or divorce coerced by her. And, most importantly, the most persuasive witness - Su himself - is now dead.

Planning for divorce

Shu said that, as China's middle class continues to grow, along with their disposable incomes, more and more Chinese couples are signing prenuptial agreements prior to marriage in order to properly plan for divorce.

"A couple of years ago, only a dozen couples came to us each year to consult about pre-nups. Now, over 100 couples visit us annually for such services, as they feel an urge to safeguard their assets and protect their rights," Shu told the Global Times.

Recent clients include a wealthy widowed man with a child from his first marriage who wanted to marry again. But his new fiancee worried that, as the man's current assets are pre-marital properties and thus all belong only to him according to China's marriage law, she would get nothing if they divorced.

So the couple signed a pre-nup, with the man agreeing to give her a portion of all his assets in the event of a divorce. "Generally speaking, in over 80 percent of Chinese marriages, men are richer," Shu said.

Newspaper headline: For richer or for poorer

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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