“They all graduated from Tsinghua and went on to the University of Southern California or similar famous universities,” said Li. “Besides, they all work at some company in Shanghai. Obviously, I suspect these are fake, generated data.”
(SpaceX did not respond to a request from MIT Technology Review to confirm the number of Tsinghua graduates working at the company.)
This isn’t the first time Li has noticed what he thinks are fake LinkedIn accounts. Starting in late 2021, he said, he started seeing profiles with fewer than a few dozen connections — rare for true LinkedIn users — and with profile pictures of always men and women. Handsome female, likely stolen from other sites. Most appear to be of Chinese descent and live in the United States or Canada.
At the same time, the phenomenon caught the attention of Grace Yuen, a spokesperson for the Global Anti-Phishing Organization (GASO), a volunteer monitoring group “pork killing scam. “Scammers engage in this activity, starting in 2017 in China, creating fake profiles on social networking sites or dating sites, connecting with victims, building virtual relationships and often romantically, and eventually convince the victim to turn over their possessions. It was the scammers who came up with the name “slaughter of pigs”, comparing the intensive and long process of gaining the victim’s trust to raising a pig for slaughter.
In recent years, as China has cracked down on online fraudulent activities, these activities have focused on people outside of China who are of Chinese descent or speak Mandarin. GASO was founded in July 2021 by one such victim and now has nearly 70 volunteers on several continents.
While these fake accounts are relatively new to LinkedIn, they have been infiltrating other platforms for a long time. “Scammers started turning to LinkedIn possibly after dating sites tried to crack down on them, [like] Coffee Meets Bagel, Tinder,” says Yuen.
In certain ways, LinkedIn is a great way for scammers to expand their reach. “You might be married and you’re not on dating sites, but you probably have a LinkedIn account that you check from time to time,” says Yuen.
LinkedIn scammers may be trying to connect with someone through a shared work experience, a common hometown, or a feeling of living abroad. More than 60% of the victims who contacted GASO were Chinese immigrants or had Chinese ancestry, which these agents relied on to evoke nostalgia or a desire for companionship. Falsifying claims to have graduated from China’s top universities, which are notoriously difficult to get into, also helps scammers gain respect.