The 1,000 Chinese SpaceX engineers who never existed
If you just looked at his LinkedIn page, Mai Linzheng would be a top-notch engineer. With a bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua, China’s top university, and a master’s degree in semiconductor manufacturing from UCLA, Mai began his career at Intel and KBR, a space tech company, before ending up at SpaceX in 2013. He is now a senior technician after spending the past nine months and eight years working in space.
But, not everything is as it seems.
Upon closer inspection, there are plenty of red flags: Despite having been in the US for 18 years, Mai has written all his job titles, degrees, and company locations in Chinese. Although his alma mater Tsinghua only offers this degree to student athletes and Mai did not receive it, his bachelor’s degree in business management is what he has. Mai is also younger than the man in his profile picture. It turns out that the image was stolen from Korean influencer Yang Inmo’s Instagram .. None of the information on this page actually is true.
The profile of “Mai Linzheng” is actually one of the millions of fraudulent pages set up on LinkedIn to lure users into scams, often involving cryptocurrency investments and targeting people of Chinese descent all over the world. Mai Linzheng is a scammer who claims to be affiliated with prestigious schools or companies in order to increase their credibility and connect with other users, build a relationship and fall for financial traps.
Since last year, such activities are steadily on the rise at LinkedIn. This is despite years of proliferation on other social networking platforms as well as dating apps. In the second half of 2021, LinkedIn removed 7% more profiles because of fraudulent identities than in the six months before that, according to Oscar Rodriguez, LinkedIn’s senior director of trust, privacy, and equity.
“Scammers are highly sophisticated and proactive in terms of how often they adapt tactics,” he says. LinkedIn began to see scammers using the news a week after the Biden administration had announced its student loan forgiveness program.
To date, victims have lost millions of money to scams that originated from the platform. The FBI announced this summer that it would investigate these scams, work with victims to identify bad actors, and disable their accounts. However, financial losses are almost impossible for victims to recover.
Scammers “are always thinking about different ways to victimize people, victimize companies,” Sean Ragan, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the San Francisco and Sacramento field offices, told CNBC in June. “And they spend their time doing their homework, defining their goals and their strategies, and their tools and tactics that they use.” He called the work of these criminals a “significant threat.”
A SpaceX “employee” invited you to connect
At one point in July, there were over 1,000 LinkedIn profiles for individuals who, like “Mai Linzheng,” claimed to have graduated from Tsinghua University and to work at SpaceX. The eye-popping number even triggered patriotic Chinese influencers to lament the brain drain and accuse Chinese university graduates of disloyalty to their country. This caught the attention Jeff Li, a Toronto-based tech blogger and columnist for Financial Times China. He confirmed on July 11 that he could find 1,004 Tsinghua graduates by searching for SpaceX employees on LinkedIn; this would have made the alumni group the largest at the company. But many accounts he saw claimed the exact same education and work experiences–suggesting that someone was mass-generating fake profiles.
“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went on to the University of Southern California or similar well-known universities,” Li says. “They also all worked for a company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect that these are fake, generated information.”
(SpaceX didn’t respond to MIT Technology Review’s request to confirm the number Tsinghua-educated employees at the company. )
This wasn’t the first time Li noticed what he believed to be 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 photos that were always good-looking men and women, likely stolen from other websites. The majority of the profiles appeared to be Chinese and reside in the United States or Canada.
Around the same time, the phenomenon caught the attention of Grace Yuen, the spokesperson for the Global Anti-Scam Org (GASO), a volunteer group that tracks “pig-butchering scams.” 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 victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually persuade the victims to transfer over their assets. The term “pig butchering” was invented by the scammers to describe the long-term and intensive process of gaining trust from victims. It is similar to raising pigs for slaughter.
As China cracks down on online fraud, these operations have shifted to targeting people from other countries who are Chinese-speaking or of Chinese descent. GASO was established in July 2021 by one such victim, and the organization now has nearly 70 volunteers on several continents.
Although these fake accounts are new to LinkedIn, they have been around for a while. Yuen says that scammers moved to LinkedIn after dating sites tried cracking down on them. In certain ways, LinkedIn can be a great way to expand your reach for fraudsters. Yuen says that although you might not be on dating sites and may be married, you likely have a LinkedIn account. A scammer may use LinkedIn to try and connect with someone via a common work experience, a shared home, or the feeling that they are living in another country. Over 60% of the victims who have reached out to GASO are Chinese immigrants or have Chinese ancestry, which these actors lean on to evoke nostalgia or a desire for companionship. Scammers also gain respect by claiming to have graduated at China’s top universities. These universities are notoriously difficult to get into.
While the pig-butchering scams targeting Chinese nationals are not the only kind of fraud happening on social media platforms like LinkedIn, they are exceptional for the amount of financial losses they have caused. GASO surveyed 550 victims and calculated the median loss to be $52,000; in comparison, the median financial loss from all types of fraud in the US in 2021 was $500, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
And on average, LinkedIn victims in particular tend to lose more money than victims of fraud on other platforms–oftentimes over a million dollars, says Yuen.
” “Unlike dating sites where scammers started to target victims, LinkedIn has a lot more information than other platforms, and that can be very useful for scammers,” Yuen says. “They know your earning potential based on the type of work you listed.”
Your new LinkedIn friend wants you to learn about crypto
For one victim, a woman in her 40s who lives in Northern California and asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity, it was the perpetrator’s claim to share her background of working in accounting that made her accept his connection request last summer. They continued to chat on WhatsApp about their families and educations.
” You just find a good personality,” she said. “You have things to talk about and you feel like the person’s words make sense. It’s like making a new friend.
Soon, the “accountant” began telling her about the potential earning potential of cryptocurrency investments. She was a finance professional and felt she knew what her new friend was talking. The scammer coached her to exchange $10,000 into crypto through Coinbase, a common crypto exchange based in the US, and then to deposit the crypto assets to a separate platform where she could make investments.
Everything seemed to be going well at first. She was able to withdraw her investment gains from the cryptocurrency wallet. So she added more money and left it in the account. Two months later, she was unable to withdraw more money from the platform.
Eventually, she discovered that the investment platform her friend suggested was a scam, and was set up to trap people like herself. She lost more than a million dollars.
The introduction of crypto is relatively new to these types of scams. The con usually asks for victims to make wire transfers to a fake bank account, join an online gambling platform, or invest money in assets such as crude oil futures.
But according to data collected by GASO, crypto emerged as a new way to funnel money around January 2021 and is now used in 77% of the cases that the group documented. Crypto is easier to trace and more convenient for cross border transactions. It also involves fewer intermediaries than banks, which could potentially warn victims about fraud risks. Since last year, over $1 billion in crypto has been lost to scammers, a June FTC report shows–more than any other payment method.
Similar to the California victim, victims are often asked to purchase crypto through legitimate platforms like Coinbase and Binance, then to deposit the assets into the scammers’ crypto wallets. These wallets are disguised as investment platforms.
The methods, though, are already evolving. In October 2021, GASO noticed operations getting sophisticated enough to involve a smart contract–a blockchain program that automatically executes itself–through a phishing link that can drain money not only from the victim, but also from whoever clicks on the link shared by the victim.
A global puzzle to solve
While the “pig-butchering” scams originated in China, they have increasingly become a global operation.
The crackdowns at home have driven many criminal groups into Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and other Southeast Asian countries where telecom fraud regulations are less rigorous. New scammers are recruited from Mandarin-speaking communities across Asia, sometimes having been lied to and trafficked to what have been called “industrial-scale” scam headquarters.
GASO’s chief operation officer Brian Bruce says that they were able to trace the crypto wallets of fraudsters and trick them into sharing their IP address and geolocation information. This allowed them to discover that all the LinkedIn scammers they have encountered are in Myawaddy, Myanmar. More specifically, they are operating in a building complex called KK Park–the subject of an increasing number of reports of individuals from other parts of Asia being trafficked and forced to work in online schemes. This suggests that this criminal group has realized the scam potential of combining LinkedIn with cryptocurrency.
Yet the fact that such scams are run globally makes it hard to identify the individual criminals and hold them accountable. Bruce states that GASO is working with the FBI and US Secret Service and hopes to work closely with Southeast Asian governments in order to identify the culprits. However, due to the nature of these crimes, progress will be slow.
US lawmakers are also calling on crypto platforms to step up. Just last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform requested information from five leading crypto exchanges–Coinbase, FTX, Binance.US, Kraken, and KuCoin–on what they have done to combat crypto scams.
The responsibility for preventing scammers from targeting victims falls on the sites that they target. After several media reports about the rampant scams on LinkedIn, the platform released a report in June that says it has been able to detect 96% of fake accounts before the people behind them make any contact with users. Rodriguez says
LinkedIn does this using a combination of algorithms, industry experts suggestions and user reports. It monitors for behavioral signals such as whether a new account starts messaging other users immediately or if any of these users flag the account. He also said that LinkedIn is beta-testing a feature which records when an account was created. This could help users “understand that this account I’m engaging in a conversation with just registered two days ago,” he explained. “Your attitude towards that conversation may differ.” To LinkedIn’s credit Li, who confirmed that there were fake SpaceX engineers on LinkedIn this year, said that he noticed that scam accounts are being removed more quickly. He says that accounts might have survived for three to four days last year. Now they are being taken down in hours.
But if anyone searches on LinkedIn today for SpaceX employees who graduated from Tsinghua University, they are still likely to find around 200 results–including “Mai Linzheng” and other scam accounts. Rodriguez explained that the platform focuses on identifying fake accounts that are engaging with real users. Accounts that remain could have been dormant since registration.
Some victims still hope that the platform can do more to warn people.
” I trust people quite easily. “Unfortunately, [what happened] was a very, very costly lesson,” said the California woman who was conned out of $1 million. “I’m just hoping all the parties involved in this–not just the consumers but everybody else–are on high alert.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.