“They all graduated from Tsinghua University and went on to the University of Southern California or similar prestigious universities,” says Li. “Besides, they all worked for a company in Shanghai. Obviously, these are supposed to be fake, generated data.”
(SpaceX did not respond to a request from MIT Technology Review to confirm how many Tsinghua graduates worked for the company.)
This wasn’t the first time Li had noticed what he believed to be a fake LinkedIn account. Starting in late 2021, he said, he started seeing profiles with fewer than a few dozen connections. This is unusual for his real LinkedIn user. Profile pictures were always handsome men and women, likely stolen from other his websites. Most were of Chinese descent and appeared to live in the US or Canada.
Around the same time, the phenomenon came to the attention of Grace Yuen, a spokesperson for the Global Anti-Scam Org (GASO), a volunteer group that tracks “pig slaughter scams.” Scammers involved in the practice, which began in China in 2017, create fake profiles on social media sites and dating sites to connect with victims, develop virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually Convince the victim to transfer assets. Comparing the intensive and lengthy process of gaining a victim’s trust to breeding pigs for slaughter, the scammers themselves came up with the name “pig slaughter.”
In recent years, as China cracks down on illicit online activities, these activities have increasingly targeted overseas Chinese and Mandarin speakers outside of China. GASO was founded by one such victim in July 2021, and the organization now has nearly 70 of her volunteers on several continents.
These fake accounts are relatively new to LinkedIn, but have been around for a long time on other platforms. “It may be after the dating site tried to crack down on them that the scammer started moving to his LinkedIn. [like] Coffee meets bagels and Tinder,” says Yuen.
In some ways, LinkedIn is a great way for scammers to reach out. “You may already be married and not on dating sites, but you may have a LinkedIn account and check it from time to time,” he says Yuen.
LinkedIn scammers may try to connect with someone through shared work experience, shared hometowns, or the feeling of living in a foreign country. More than 60% of his GASO-contacted victims are of Chinese immigrant or Chinese ancestry, and these actors rely on to evoke nostalgia and a desire for companionship. False claims of having graduated from a top-tier Chinese university, which is notoriously difficult to get into, have also helped the scammers gain respect.