“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went on to the University of Southern California or similar well-known universities,” says Li. “On top of that, they all worked at a certain company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect that this is fake and 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 come across what he thought were fake LinkedIn accounts. Starting in late 2021, he says, he started seeing profiles with fewer than a dozen connections (rare for actual LinkedIn users) and with profile photos that were always good-looking men and women, likely stolen from elsewhere web. Most appeared to be ethnic Chinese and live in the United States or Canada.
At the same time, the phenomenon caught the attention of Grace Yuen, spokeswoman for the Global Anti-Scam Org (GASO), a volunteer group that tracks “pig butchering scams.” Fraudsters involved in this practice, which began as early as 2017 in China, create fake profiles on social networking sites or dating sites, connect with victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and finally persuade victims to transfer the their assets The scammers themselves came up with the name “pig butchery”, comparing the time-intensive and long-term process of gaining victims’ trust to raising a pig for slaughter.
In recent years, as China has cracked down on fraudulent activities online, these operations have focused on targeting people outside of China who are of Chinese descent or speak Mandarin. GASO was established 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 moving to LinkedIn perhaps after dating sites tried to crack down on them, [like] “Coffee Meets Bagel, Tinder,” says Yuen.
In some ways, LinkedIn is a great way for scammers to expand 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,” says Yuen.
A LinkedIn scammer might try to connect with someone through common work experience, a shared hometown, or the feeling of living in a foreign country. More than 60% of the victims who have contacted GASO are Chinese immigrants or have Chinese ancestry, which these actors rely on to evoke nostalgia or a desire for companionship. False claims of having graduated from China’s top universities, which are notoriously difficult to get into, also help scammers gain respect.