Fakes on LinkedIn: 1000 Chinese SpaceX Engineers That Never Were

Some bizarre scams are now happening on LinkedIn. Most recently, people pretended to be employees of well-known tech companies.

(Image: PK Studio/Shutterstock.com)

Actually, the LinkedIn page looks quite normal. Mai Linzheng introduces himself as a top-notch engineer with a bachelor’s degree from Tsinghua University, China’s top university, plus a master’s degree in semiconductor manufacturing from UCLA. He then started a career at Intel and KBR, a space company, before finally ending up at SpaceX in 2013. After spending the last eight years and nine months helping humanity on future space trips, he is now said to be the chief engineer there.

Too bad it’s not all true. Because on closer inspection there are a lot of “red flags”: Although Mai has lived in the USA for 18 years, he has described all his job titles, degrees, and company locations in Chinese. And he has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, although his alma mater, Tsinghua, only offers that degree to varsity athletes — and Mai wasn’t one. In addition, the man looks younger than the stated age in his profile photo. As it turns out, the picture was stolen from Korean influencer Yang In-mo on Instagram. Because: None of the information on this profile page is true.

“Mai Linzheng’s” account is actually one of perhaps millions of fraudulent sites that have now been set up on LinkedIn to dupe users. This often involves cryptocurrency investments that are wrong. People of Chinese descent around the world are the target audience. Scammers like Mai claim that they are from reputable universities and companies to increase their credibility before contacting users, establishing a relationship, and trapping them financially.

Since last year, such activity on LinkedIn has steadily increased after years of spreading to other social media platforms and dating apps. In the second half of 2021, LinkedIn removed 7 percent more profiles for fraudulent activity than in the previous six months, according to Oscar Rodriguez, LinkedIn senior director for Trust, Privacy, and Equity.

“Cheaters are very sophisticated and proactive when it comes to adjusting their tactics,” he says. For example, a week after the US government under President Biden announced a new student loan forgiveness plan, LinkedIn scammers began using it for their scam.

Meanwhile, victims have lost millions of dollars to scams that originated on the platform. This summer, the FBI announced it was finally investigating the scams on a large scale, working with victims to identify perpetrators and disable their accounts — even if the financial losses are nearly impossible to recover.

Scammers are “always thinking of new ways to rip off people and businesses,” Sean Ragan, the FBI’s San Francisco and Sacramento official in charge of the matter, told CNBC in June. “They really spend their time doing their homework, defining goals and strategies, and determining appropriate tools and tactics.” The work of these criminals is a “significant threat”.

At one point in July, there were over 1,000 LinkedIn profiles of people claiming, like “Mai Linzheng,” to have a degree from Tsinghua University and to work at SpaceX. This staggering number even prompted patriotic Chinese influencers to lament the brain drain and accuse college graduates of disloyalty to their country.

This caught the attention of Jeff Li, a Toronto-based tech influencer and columnist for the Financial Times China. He discovered a total of 1,004 Tsinghua graduates while searching for SpaceX employees on LinkedIn on July 11 – making the alumni group the largest at the company. However, many accounts he found stated the exact same education and work experience, suggesting someone was mass-creating fake profiles.

“They all graduated from Tsinghua and then went to the University of Southern California or similar well-known universities,” says Li. “Also, they all worked at a certain company in Shanghai. Of course, I suspected that they were fake and probably computer-generated data.” (SpaceX didn’t respond to an inquiry from MIT Technology Review about how many Tsinghua graduates actually work there.)

This wasn’t the first time Li had spotted fake LinkedIn accounts. In late 2021, he came across profiles with fewer than a few dozen connections — a rarity for true LinkedIn users — and with profile photos that consistently featured handsome men and women that were likely stolen from other sites. Most appeared to be of Chinese descent and said to live in the United States or Canada.

Around the same time, Grace Yuen, spokeswoman for the Global Anti-Scam Org (GASO), a volunteer group that tracks pig-butchering scams, became aware of the phenomenon. Scammers involved in this practice, which began in China back in 2017, create fake profiles on social media or dating websites, contact victims, establish virtual and often even romantic relationships, and persuade victims eventually to invest their wealth. The scammers themselves came up with the name “slaughter of pigs,” comparing the intense and lengthy process of gaining victims’ trust to fattening a pig before slaughter.

As China cracked down on online fraudulent activities in recent years, these operations have now shifted to people outside of China who are of Chinese descent or speak Mandarin. GASO was founded by one such victim in July 2021 – and the organization now has nearly 70 volunteers across multiple continents. While LinkedIn fake accounts are relatively new, they have been around for a long time on other platforms. “The scammers started moving on LinkedIn after dating sites like Coffee Meets Bagel and Tinder tried to crack down on them,” says Yuen. In a way, LinkedIn is a great way for scammers to expand their reach. “

A scammer on LinkedIn may try to contact someone about a shared work experience, a shared hometown, or a feeling of living in a foreign country. Over 60 percent of the victims who have contacted GASO are Chinese immigrants or have Chinese ancestry – which the scammers exploit to incite nostalgia or a desire for connection. Fake claims of having degrees from China’s top universities, which are notoriously difficult to get admitted to, also earn the scammer’s respect.

While the scams targeting Chinese nationals are not the only type of scam to appear on social media platforms like LinkedIn, they are exceptional in terms of the amount of financial loss they have caused to date. GASO interviewed 550 victims and calculated an average loss of $52,000 per person. In comparison, the average financial loss from all types of fraud in the US in 2021 was $500 per person, according to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

And LinkedIn victims in particular lose more money on average than scam victims on other platforms — sometimes as much as $1 million, Yuen says. “Unlike dating websites, which are where the first scam victims came from, LinkedIn has a lot of information that is really useful to scammers,” she says. “You’ll see your earning potential based on the type of work that users have reported.”

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