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April 17, 2017

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Money scams: cunning swindlers, scarred victims

EVERY time I meet with Zhang Nan, the 61-year-old victim of a high-profile financial fraud that involved 1.5 billion yuan (US$217.8 million) of investors’ sav­ings, I get new insights into how people cope with such a personal disaster.

Many of the victims I’ve met in the past two years were depressed, agi­tated or fueled with anger. So-called wealth managers, who promised them better returns than bank deposits, turned out to be charlatans who cheated them out of their life savings.

Zhang, however, has remained rela­tively calm and focused. She doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could be sucked into such a scam. But she was, and lost 300,000 yuan.

Instead of wallowing in misery, Zhang has been seeking redress. She pops up in various venues as part of a campaign on behalf of herself and others to get the money back. It’s been a fruitless pursuit so far.

“I’m crystal clear about my situa­tion,” she once told me. “My fate is already in someone else’s hands, but at least I should try to see what I can do.”


I first met her at the front door of ac­countancy firm Ernst & Young. She was one of hundreds of investors demand­ing answers from the firm, which was alleged at the time to have some sort of relationship with Shanghai Uprosper Asset Management Co, operator of the online peer-to-peer lender Jinxing Investments.

Jinxing left 400 million yuan of worthless assets in its wake when its owner disappeared.

Angry encounters like the one at Ernst & Young have occurred periodi­cally in the past two years, after more than one-third of nearly 4,000 online lenders defaulted or had trouble meeting financial obligations. At least US$24 billion of funds was involved in 2015 alone, according to a previous calculation by Quartz.

Tip of the iceberg

The come-on was simple. Banks pay poor interest, so people flocked to investment alternatives that promised them a higher return. Gullible mom and pop investors never considered the long-established fact that high returns can involve high risks.

In one of the most high-profile cases, the savings of nearly 900,000 investors in Ezubao vanished in a puff of fraud exposed in December 2015.

In the case of Jinxing, the fraud case passed to the police bureau that over­sees economic criminal activities, but that didn’t pacify irate investors like Zhang, who wanted a faster resolution.

Some of the investors created a body to represent all victims. They arranged protests in front of companies said to be related to swindlers. Zhang was one of the more active voices.

At our first meeting, she told me that the group was seeking compensation from Ernst & Young.

“It’s a small amount of money for them, but a huge amount of money for us,” Zhang said. “We have the right to fight to get our money back.”

Ernst & Young has consistently denied any involvement with Jinxing.

In the end, no compensation was forthcoming, but Zhang and I stayed in touch for progress reports on her continuing efforts. A few months later, I received a call from her in a chipper voice. She informed me that a public trial was scheduled in late March.

“Come and listen to the hearing,” she said. “I’ll grab a front row seat for you.”

All was not as simple as it sounded. Zhang’s view of judicial expediency was somewhat naive.

The prosecutor accused 14 former employees of Jinxing of illegally mis­appropriating public savings, and one former senior manager was charged with illegally raising funds. But the company owner who disappeared and the other actual shareholders of Jinxing weren’t mentioned in the indictment.

“The people they are charging are nobodies,” Zhang said sadly. “How could they know the truth? How could they know the whereabouts of my money?”

Nonetheless, about 200 victims attended the hearing that day. The at­mosphere in the Xuhui District People’s Court room was tense.

The judge had to postpone the hear­ing for 20 minutes because one of the suspects was late. She later appeared and said in a trembling voice that she was delayed because she was trying to find funds for some repayments. The victims in the room didn’t buy that excuse. They began hurling verbal insults at the woman, forcing the judge to raise the volume of his microphone calling for order.

The senior manager testified that all investment projects promised to investors were fake. He gave no clue where the lost 400 million yuan could be found.

Zhang, like others, was angry about the court proceedings. She felt the hearing delivered only one message: The money is gone and there is no way to recoup the losses. The proceedings didn’t even offer any remorse for the victims.

After the hearing, Zhang and I had a chat near her apartment in the far-flung Songjiang District. It was the first time the fire in her belly seemed dimmer.

“Sometimes you can’t explain why you make wrong decisions,” she said.

I told Zhang the story of Wu Kejia, a 27-year-old victim of a different sort of disillusion. Her former boyfriend, now jailed, cheated her out of 300,000 yuan. Instead of crumbling inward, she stood up to what had happened, learned a lesson and looked to a better future.

I asked Zhang whether she could choose to turn the page the way Wu did. Zhang shook her head. Her 15 years working for a state-owned tele­com manufacturer taught her that one must face up to problems, not dismiss them. When you are laid off, you find a new job. When you are cheated out of money, you fight to get it back.

Her fight is not over. But neither is the potential for further swindles. Despite heavy government regulations and monitoring, the peer-to-peer lend­ing industry shows no signs of folding.

Loans in that sector blew past 920 billion yuan mark by March, nearly doubled a year earlier, according to Shanghai-based consultant Yingcan Group. It begs the question: How many more people will be sucked into losing their savings?

Yang Jiacai, the assistant chairman of China’s banking regulator, was rumored last week to be under inves­tigation for mishandling information on the national exposure to risk in Internet finance, Caixin reported.

Zhang seems unfazed by it all. She is busy compiling more written materials for the next court hearing on April 24, telling people that there still a rogue boss at large and he must be brought to justice.


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