September 28, 2022
  • September 28, 2022

The 1,000 Chinese SpaceX engineers who only existed on LinkedIn

By on September 7, 2022 0

“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went to the University of Southern California or similar well-known universities,” Li said. “Besides that, they all worked in a certain company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect this is fake generated data.

(SpaceX did not respond to a request from MIT Technology Review to confirm the number of Tsinghua graduates working at the company.)

This wasn’t the first time Li had noticed what he thought were fake LinkedIn accounts. Starting in late 2021, he says, he started seeing profiles with less than a few dozen connections — rare for real LinkedIn users — and with profile pictures that were always of handsome men and women, probably stolen from other websites. Most appeared to be of Chinese descent and live in the United States or Canada.

Around the same time, the phenomenon caught the attention of Grace Yuen, spokesperson for the Global Anti-Scam Org (GASO), a volunteer group that tracks “pig butcher scams.” The scammers involved in this practice, which started as early as 2017 in China, create fake profiles on social media sites or dating sites, connect with the victims, form virtual and often romantic relationships and end up persuading the victims to transfer their assets. The scammers themselves have coined the name “pig butchering”, likening the intensive, long-term process of gaining victims’ trust to raising a pig for slaughter.

In recent years, as China has clamped down on fraudulent activity online, these operations have turned to targeting people outside China who are of Chinese descent or speak Mandarin. GASO was created in July 2021 by one of these victims, and the organization now has nearly 70 volunteers on several continents.

Although these fake accounts are relatively new to LinkedIn, they have permeated other platforms for a long time. “Scammers started migrating to LinkedIn perhaps after dating sites tried to crack them down, [like] Coffee meets bagel, Tinder,” says Yuen.

In some ways, LinkedIn is a great way for scammers to extend their reach. “You may already be married and not on dating sites, but you probably have a LinkedIn account that you check from time to time,” Yuen says.

A scammer on LinkedIn may try to connect with someone through shared work experience, a shared hometown, or a sense of living in a foreign country. More than 60% of victims who have reached out to OPAG are Chinese immigrants or have Chinese ancestry, which these actors rely on to evoke nostalgia or a desire for companionship. False claims that they graduated from top Chinese universities, which are notoriously hard to get to, also help scammers gain respect.