“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went on to the University of Southern California or similar well-known universities,” Li says. “Besides that, they all worked at a certain company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect these are fake, generated data.”
(SpaceX did not reply 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 photos that were always good-looking men and women, likely stolen from other websites. Most appeared to be of Chinese ethnicity and to live 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 scammers themselves came up with the name “pig butchering,” comparing the 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 online activities, these operations have pivoted to targeting people outside China who are of Chinese descent or speak Mandarin. GASO was established in July 2021 by one such victim, and the organization now has nearly 70 volunteers on several continents.
While these fake accounts are relatively new to LinkedIn, they have permeated other platforms for a long time. “Scammers started moving to LinkedIn maybe after dating sites tried to crack down on them, [like] Coffee Meets Bagel, Tinder,” Yuen says.
In certain ways, LinkedIn is a great way for fraudsters to expand their reach. “You might be already married and you are not on the dating sites, but you probably have a LinkedIn account that you check occasionally,” says Yuen.
A scammer on LinkedIn may try to connect with someone through common work experience, a shared hometown, or the feeling of living in a foreign 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. The fake claims to have graduated from China’s top universities, which are notoriously difficult to get into, also help scammers earn respect.