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Professionals beware: That new LinkedIn connection request may be part of a scam

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We've all seen phishing scams pop up in our email - you know, a link to reset your Facebook password, only it's from an email address that has nothing to do with Facebook, or the random text saying hello from a number you don't recognize. But how about a colleague looking to connect on LinkedIn? That might sound innocuous enough, but it's the first step in an elaborate scheme that scammers have been using in recent years to steal huge amounts of money from hundreds of innocent people.

Zeyi Yang wrote about it for the MIT Technology Review and joins us now for our weekly All Tech Considered segment. Hey there.

ZEYI YANG: Hi.

MCCAMMON: The title of your article is "The 1,000 Chinese SpaceX Engineers Who Never Existed." So first of all, who are these engineers who didn't exist?

YANG: These are, if you just look at their LinkedIn profile, really brilliant engineers. They graduated from the top universities. They worked in really good tech companies before ending up at SpaceX for a number of years. But then if you actually look deeper in there, there are so many red flags to tell you that these are actually just generally fake profiles.

MCCAMMON: So you profiled a California woman who fell victim to one of these schemes, and she says she lost more than $1 million. So first, can you just briefly explain how did she get lured into this?

YANG: Sure. So this victim, she received a connection request on LinkedIn. It's from someone who also works in accounting, so same as her. And then from there, they were talking about life. They were talking about career. And they gradually move onto WhatsApp. And it's there when the scammer asked her whether she knows about crypto and whether she wants to invest in crypto. So she agree with it, and that scammer basically coached her to transfer her money to cryptocurrency. And after a while, she realized that those cryptocurrencies are completely lost, and she could never withdraw them back.

MCCAMMON: You know, there are so many scammers online. I think a lot of us know this, and yet this scheme has been successful in luring people in. Why does it seem to appeal to some people?

YANG: I think a lot of it has to do with how people trust connections on LinkedIn, and there are strangers reaching out. And these are a kind of genuine person who just wants to know about you or want to connect with you. And that's why when people see someone - especially when they have, like, a complete profile of their education background, their employment history - you also think that, OK, maybe this is a real person. We can connect, and we can talk about stuff. And after a while, you started to lower your guard.

MCCAMMON: And you reported that some of these people went to great lengths; I mean, really kind of developed an online relationship with their targets.

YANG: Yeah, exactly. So when it started, the scammers themselves actually referred to it as pig butchering scams.

MCCAMMON: Pig butchering - wow.

YANG: Exactly. That's, like, a really cruel word to use there, but that's how they refer to it themselves because they usually spend months with the victim just to cultivate their trust. So that's why they refer to it as kind of the process of nurturing a pig and eventually for slaughter.

MCCAMMON: You wrote that something like two-thirds of the victims of these schemes are of Chinese ancestry. Why is that?

YANG: Yeah. I think the reason is that these criminal groups, they are originally from China, and they speak Chinese. That's why when they find these Chinese-speaking or Chinese descendants on LinkedIn, these people become their easier targets.

MCCAMMON: You spoke to LinkedIn about this. What did they say they're doing about it?

YANG: So LinkedIn told me that they are using a mix of artificial intelligence and just human experts, human inputs, to find out which of the profiles are fake and how to prevent them from contacting anyone before people are scammed. But it seems that you can still find a lot of these fake profiles on LinkedIn, so that means there's still a long way to go.

MCCAMMON: And finally, is there anything specific that people should watch out for to avoid being a victim of a scam like this?

YANG: I would say one red flag is that if you connected on LinkedIn but after a while they ask to move on to WhatsApp or other communication app, that could be a red flag. Just look for that and be really careful, especially when they ask you to - ask you anything about investment and inviting you to invest in certain assets.

MCCAMMON: Zeyi Yang's article appeared this month in the MIT Technology Review. Thank you so much.

YANG: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: And we should note, LinkedIn is among NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Enrique Rivera
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.