Vivien Zheng says she will never forget the phone call that led to losing her family’s entire life savings — $340,000.
The 43-year-old was rushing to her job, selling jewellery behind the counter in a downtown Vancouver department store, when her cellphone rang.
The caller said she was an employee at the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver, read off Zheng’s driver’s licence number, and told her she was a suspect in an international money-laundering scam.
“I was very surprised she had my driver’s licence number, because it was only one month old,” Zheng told Go Public. “I was scared to death.”
Only it wasn’t actually an employee at the consulate.
It was a scammer — the beginning of an elaborate wire transfer fraud that has taken both her savings and an enormous toll on her mental health.
- Got a story? Contact Erica and the Go Public team
“I had suicidal plans,” she confided, explaining that the May 2018 crime affected her so badly she is only now able to speak publicly about it.
It’s a crime, Zheng argues, that could have been prevented if the banks had better systems in place to protect customers — and financial fraud expert Vanessa Iafolla agrees.
“They’re [banks] the last line of defence,” said Iafolla, an assistant professor of criminology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. “A secondary check … would go a long way to protecting people.”
How the fraudsters preyed
The supposed consulate employee told Zheng she was transferring the call to a Hong Kong police investigator, who was also in on the scam and accused her of selling her bank account information to criminals.
The “investigator” told Zheng she would be arrested, sent to Hong Kong and thrown in jail indefinitely if she didn’t co-operate. He texted her a fake arrest warrant, that included the photo from her driver’s licence.
“I totally believed these are international Chinese police calling me,” said Zheng, adding that the call appeared to be coming from 110, an emergency number in China similar to 911. “So I trust everything is true.”
WATCH | ‘I was scared to death,’ Zheng says:
The scammer also threatened to freeze Zheng’s bank accounts for three years if she didn’t follow instructions, which included forbidding her to tell anyone, especially the banks, what was going on.
“I started crying,” said Zheng. Her mother had died and her father had sold his sole property in China. He’d sent that life savings to Zheng so she could buy a condo and he could come to Canada and live with her.
“I was in the process of closing that [condo] sale,” she said. “So I was in panic mode. I did everything they asked me to do.”
The criminals instructed Zheng not to go online, telling her they were with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in Hong Kong — an actual organization created to stem government corruption — and were tracking her every move.
They claimed the…