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By Liu Chen of RNZ
An Auckland single mum has to work two jobs to support her family after losing $200,000 to scammers posing as Chinese officials.
Netsafe said hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost in the past two years to what's known as the "Chinese embassy scam".
Auckland woman Wendy (a pseudonym) received a call after dinner in early May.
The caller claimed he was from Shanghai Communications Administration and Wendy was involved in sending scam text messages in China.
Though originally from Guangzhou in south China, Wendy has not been back in years.
She was suspicious at first but they managed to dupe her as they knew her name and other details.
"They must have gone through some training as the way they talked, the tone, all sounded very similar to those from the authorities... It sounded very authoritative and convincing. Even the language and terms they used sounded very official."
She explained that it could not be her and the caller suggested she report it to police in Shanghai as it was likely that she was a victim of identity theft.
The caller offered to transfer her and another man picked up the phone, claiming himself to be an officer.
He asked for Wendy's Chinese ID number and told her she was a suspect in a large scale fraud.
The so-called officer even gave Wendy his badge number and offered to call her back to show that he was really from the police - and his phone number matched with the official number Wendy had found online.
He told Wendy that she needed to go back to China for trial or risk being deported from New Zealand.
"I didn't doubt. I was just worried. I was not thinking that this was all fake. I was just worried that I would be separated from my family."
Working as a barista, Wendy is the the sole bread-winner of the family, supporting her 11-year-old son and parents.
She was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and report five times per day to the "officer" through Telegram messenger during the "investigation".
She also had to report all her online activities - and all of those were said to ensure she did not flee and had been keeping the case confidential.
Later she was told a "victim of her fraud case" had passed away after a suicide attempt in China, which made her very sad - she was blaming herself for not keeping her personal information safe, despite already being anxious and worried about her "involvement" in the crime and she cannot even talk to her family about it.
Because of the "death", the "officer" told her that the prosecutor wanted to arrest all suspects overseas as soon as possible, but Wendy did not need to go back to China straight away as long as she could prove all her income was legitimate.
A so-called prosecutor then got in touch and asked her to pay $50,000 to an account in Cambodia as bail - about two weeks after she got the initial call - and she did.
The next day, the prosecutor asked her to transfer all the money left on her account, $30,000, to ensure she did not flee and she paid again.
A few days later, the prosecutor said she needed to pay a further $160,000 to compensate her "victims" in China.
Wendy said she nearly had a breakdown as she did not have any money left.
Then she went to the bank to ask for a loan and got $100,000, which she transferred to the Cambodian account in two lots.
The so-called prosecutor even offered to cover $40,000 for Wendy but she needed to pay the $20,000 that was left.
She made up the money with her son's pocket money and some cash she had, and again transferred the money - all up she paid $200,000 in five transfers.
When questioned by her bank ANZ whether she knew the receiver, she claimed she did.
Wendy said she just hoped the case can be investigated thoroughly in early June as the scammers claimed, so she can be proved innocent and have her money back.
However, at the end of May, the "officer" told her that the prosecutor was arrested and needed just over $200,000 for his bail.
Wendy thought the prosecutor was arrested because he offered to cover some money for her, so she wanted to help free him.
Having no other ways to get money, she then sought help from her boss and told him what had happened.
"My boss said I might have been scammed after hearing my story, but I can't believe that I was scammed. I've already transferred all the money. I thought it was him that didn't believe me, rather than I was scammed," she said.
She then tried to speak to the "officer" but he refused and later all the conversations and his contact details were deleted.
She went to New Zealand police the next day but was told there was not much they can do.
To support her family and pay off the debt, Wendy often has to work long hours and with a second job baking late into the night.
'It's very difficult to recover money' - Netsafe
Netsafe chief executive officer Martin Cocker said this type of scam is so rampant that his organisation gives it a name - "the Chinese embassy scam".
He said scammers often pretend to be government officials, especially from the embassy.
"It's pretty commonly reported to us, so in the last 24 months we've had just under $700,000 of losses reported specific to this type of scam to us."
He said scammers developed sophisticated techniques to trap people, and of the $700,000 losses, not a single dollar has been returned to the victims.
"It's very difficult to recover money. The window for recovering payments is very short depending on what device you've made their payment on, but scammers are well aware of what techniques enable them to secure the money most quickly and stop you from being able to recover and those are the payment techniques that they push people toward."
Cocker called for people to stay vigilant and said anyone in New Zealand is protected by the country's law enforcement.
"The best thing to do of course is whenever you are asked to make payments or engage in processes to do your own separate research, so don't just believe what it is being presented to you."
Chinese consulate has received reports of such scams since 2017
The Chinese Vice Consul-General in Auckland, Xiao Yewen, said scammers often use technology to disguise their phone number, obtain victims' personal information illegally and apply psychological controls.
He said they often hide in a third country or region, which makes it hard for police to obtain evidence, file charges and practice law enforcement.
Xiao said his consulate started to receive reports of similar scams since 2017 and the amount of money lost ranges from several thousands to up to $200,000.
He said alerts and reminders have been sent out through various platforms.
"I will appeal to the Chinese nationals that remember please - Chinese consulates, embassies or any other Chinese government agencies will never require you by phone to ask you to provide your bank account information."
Xiao said people should report suspected scams to the New Zealand police and the authorities in China, and they should also approach the relevant bank or other payment platform to seize the transfer if possible.
"Our consulate and embassy in New Zealand stand ready to work closely with the relevant New Zealand law enforcement agencies and organisations in bringing the perpetrators wherever you are to justice."
A police spokesperson said scams can often target some of the most vulnerable communities as well as some of the ethnic communities.
"Police urge members of our community to be extremely vigilant when being called or messaged by 'organisations' insisting money to be sent to them," they said in a statement.
"If you receive demands for payments from overseas 'law enforcement' there is a good chance someone may be attempting to scam you."