In Depth: A Chinese Con Man’s Two Weeks in Nepal
Zhou Li (not his real name) was glad he escaped Nepal before the big Christmas Eve police raid.
A couple of days before the Nepali cops detained 122 Chinese nationals Dec. 24 for suspected involvement in financial crimes, Zhou fled to China from an online gaming company where he worked for about two weeks in Katmandu, the Nepali capital.
The employer, whose name Zhou declined to disclose out of safety concerns, was not on the list for the raid, but it carries out the same deceptive scheme as those that were hit. These businesses are suspected of using social media to con wealthy single or divorced Chinese women out of money.
In an exclusive interview with Caixin, Zhou, from Yueyang in central China’s Hunan province, unveiled how an international fraud scheme played out.
Online chatting, air travel reimbursement, monthly salary of at least 10,000 yuan ($1,440) plus bonus. That was the offer that convinced Zhou, 23 and unemployed, and a friend to step on an airplane to Nepal. The friend said his relative worked at Amazon.com’s customer call center in Japan. Zhou said he thought the job in Nepal would be similar.
Upon arrival at Kathmandu airport, Zhou and his friend were picked up by a local contact and settled at a hotel tucked away in a secluded alley. According to the location Zhou provided, the hotel is close to Boudhanath Stupa, a popular tourist site on the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu.
The company recently relocated from the Philippines because of tightened scrutiny by authorities. It leased more than 10 rooms from the hotel to house employees. Three to four employees shared a room, and there were many bugs in the rooms, Zhou said. The company used a vacant street-level retailing space at the hotel as its office.
Zhou was told employees had to be accompanied by designated personnel whenever they went outside the hotel for safety reasons.
On his first day at work, Zhou was given a used laptop computer, a used cell phone and a prepaid phone card. He was also given a training document, which he finished reading in about half an hour. The document taught new recruits how to compile a fake profile, introduce themselves and chat with women on dating websites.
Most often-picked professions include construction labor contractor, business partner, building material wholesaler and restaurant owner, Zhou said. They were instructed to target single or divorced women on Chinese dating websites and then lure them into spending money playing online gambling games designed by the company.
The employees were assigned different roles in the boiler room operation. Some were responsible for recruiting people from their hometowns; some screened potential clients on dating sites; and those who could type fast were assigned five targets a day. New recruits like Zhou were assigned two each day. Anyone who successfully attracted clients to spend money on the gambling games could get a 20% commission.
Zhou started his routine at 4 a.m. every day, including sending morning greetings to his targets. Usually he would tell them he just finished jogging or had a meeting to attend, to create an image of a successful and busy businessman. Around noon, he would text the targets asking them what they had for lunch.
The key strategy was to learn the targets’ interests and establish a bond with them, Zhou said. Some of his more skilled colleagues could chat with a dozen women online simultaneously. After gaining the targets’ trust, they would claim they had “inside information” and could help the targets win money in online gambling. After taking the bait, the players would win the first few games under the gaming company’s manipulation to lure them into betting more money.
Zhou heard that a colleague got a client to spend more than 800,000 yuan in two days. Most of the targets were women in their 40s and 50s who usually weren’t internet-savvy.
Southeast Asia bans drive companies to Nepal
Since the second half of 2019, many such online gambling companies, mostly operated by Chinese citizens, relocated to Nepal from Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines, pushed out by a ban on online gambling by Cambodia and a halt in new licenses for online gaming in the Philippines.
Nepal has a relatively relaxed legal and business environment for casino and online gambling operators. The country also grants 90-day visas on arrival to Chinese citizens to attract foreign tourists, making it convenient for online gambling operators to recruit people from China.
Some local Chinese residents in Nepal told Caixin they noticed that many young Chinese men appeared in Kathmandu since September, claiming they were in e-commerce or internet businesses. They usually rented a big villa as their office and employee dormitory. Some local residents complained that these people drove up rents.
One of the main sites in December’s raid was an eight-story building on the northwest outskirts of Kathmandu. Local residents told Caixin that through windows they saw people working in front of computers. Not long before the arrest, the tenants spoke with the owner of a house across the street, offering 9,000 yuan a month, or four times the current rent.
The arrests were one of the biggest crackdowns on crime involving foreigners in the Himalayan country last year. But local residents said they think the raids hit only the tip of an iceberg. Nepali police said they are still closely monitoring about 800 suspected Chinese nationals.
“We could not catch most of them as they might have run away,” said Uttam Raj Subedi, chief of Nepal police in Kathmandu. “We are still on high alert.”
When Zhou told his boss his intention to quit, the company confiscated his passport and required that he pay back the flight ticket and his expenses in Nepal before returning it so he could leave. Zhou said he stole back his passport while others in the company were holding a party to welcome new recruits. He fled to the airport and took the cheapest flight back home, he said.
Contact reporter Denise Jia (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Matrika Dahal at Kantipur National Daily and freelancer Bhadra Sharma contributed to this story.
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