A threatening call

The FBI has revealed a worrying trend of extortion attempts via phone calls against Chinese immigrant business owners across the United States and Canada.

The FBI announced last week that there was a growing trend of extortion attempts via phone calls against Chinese immigrant business owners across the United States and Canada. The calls – from people threatening the business owners with violence unless they make a payment – are believed to have originated in mainland China. So far, the Toronto area has seen nearly 150 cases reported, and cases also have been reported in the US cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Dallas, and in the state of New Jersey.

To date, only Chinese business owners have been targeted – according to reports, at least two different male extortion callers with Fujianese or Taiwanese accents only will speak if the conversation is conducted in Mandarin. The call typically starts off with a plea to help one of the caller’s friends or family members who is reportedly in trouble. The caller then asks the intended victim for a bank transfer of anywhere from $US10,000 to $US35,000. At least two different victims are known to have wired money in response to the calls.

If the caller’s initial friendly request is refused, the caller switches to a violent tone, threatening to attack the victim’s business with explosives or firearms, or to kidnap the owner’s child. In some cases, the caller mentions details of the business location and claims to have connections to local Chinese organized crime groups that will carry out the threat. It is thought the perpetrators are using Google Earth or local business directories to obtain information on the businesses. In one case in Philadelphia, the caller contacted businesses along just one street one day, and then shifted to businesses along another street the next day, suggesting the caller was working off a list. None of the targeted businesses have reported physical attacks.

This type of phone extortion has become very popular in China, as have virtual kidnappings. Accessing personal information in China is easy, allowing the callers to make more credible threats. Enhancing the efficacy of this sort of scam in China, the threat of Chinese organized criminal shakedowns is very real on the mainland – hence, such calls are not taken lightly in China. (Chinese organized crime is taken seriously in the United States, too, which could be why the two victims complied and wired money to the extortionist.)

It remains unclear if there is any connection between the North American cases and Chinese organized crime. But Chinese immigrant-owned businesses in North America likely are perceived as wealthy targets ripe for exploitation since many immigrant groups tend to be insular and reluctant to cooperate with local law enforcement. Even when the police become involved, solving such crimes is difficult: US law enforcement naturally lacks jurisdiction in China, meaning it must rely on Chinese authorities to solve such cross-border crimes.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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