So, I’ve been scammed by a Chinese seller. I sent money, they sent nothing/something less than what I ordered/junk and are now flunking Customer Service 101. Now what?
Unfortunately, in short, you take it as a very expensive lesson learned and warn others. The money, more than likely, is gone, whether you were scammed by a non-delivery scammer who sent nothing, shipped a box of rocks, or a supposed “name brand” seller who sends you some cheap knockoffs that don’t work or were hacked or built out of quality components like twigs and baling twine. Warning others away from the same type of scam and avoiding making the same mistake twice is usually the best you can hope for.
In a nutshell, once you send your money to China, you’re at the mercy of the recipient. If they are legitimate or semi-legitimate and you seem like a possible repeat customer who will place substantial orders and would be worth their while to keep coming back, they may work with you. If you are obviously a one-time customer who stopped by to get a great deal on that single unit of this week’s cool new phone and have ranted that you’ll never buy from them again after this experience, forget getting a refund.
If you’re only willing to take extra steps if you can definitely recover your money, you might as well not bother. In the entire existence of Fraudwatchers, we’ve only heard of one person receiving a refund from a Chinese seller who failed to uphold their side of the bargain, and it was a very unusual circumstance. Unless you happen to have friends, employees, or a personal attorney located in China, or you travel there often, you will not be recovering any money.
Why is it so difficult to recover money from counterfeit, copycat and non-delivery scammers located in China?
A variety of factors come into play here. One undeniably large factor is the fact that, despite it being technically illegal to counterfeit brand name goods, China mostly turns a blind eye to the practice because it brings in a great deal of revenue. Therefore, they do not generally pursue sellers who claim (always falsely, I might add) to be Chinese manufacturers and “direct wholesalers” of Nikes or iPhones, for example. The practice of “copycatting” brand name goods and labeling them as “genuine” is also widely accepted or winked at. There’s also not a lot of interest in pursuing people who sell you an 8 GB MP3 player that turns out to be a hacked 2 GB MP3 player.
Definitions of “genuine”, you will find, differ. Many Chinese sellers will swear up and down that their goods are “genuine”. While you may accept that to mean “Yes, this is a genuine Lacoste product with all the proper construction, labels, logos, etc.” the Chinese seller may simply mean “My product looks pretty much like a Lacoste shirt, enough to fool the casual observer.” The seller may very well feel completely justified in calling their “near-Nikes” and “almost-Apples” genuine because they get the general look, feel and some of the interface right.
Similarly, Chinese authorities seem to have little interest in pursuing non-delivery scammers, who don’t send anything of value, unless they have a properly filed police report. They cannot open an investigation based upon an email from a foreign citizen. Chinese law makes it exceedingly easy for a scammer to obtain a personal Chinese bank account without providing substantial identification, which means they can receive payments into the account completely anonymously, withdraw the funds, and abandon the account easily, without being identified. Corporate accounts can’t be abused so easily. If that bank account you paid into was owned by “James Chen” as opposed to “Chen Electronics”, the bank may never have seen “James Chen”.
Chinese laws also make it nearly impossible for you to pursue any sort of criminal or civil action. You cannot file a police report from outside the country, by phone, email or postal mail. In order to file such a complaint, you must either travel to China in person or have a legal representative (a lawyer, friend or employee who has been appointed to act on your behalf) go to the police directly to file the report. The filer must BE in China. Your local authorities will have zero jurisdiction in the case. The same goes for Interpol. Interpol has no police authority on its own, they merely facilitate cooperation between cooperative police forces. Filing a court action is expensive. Add in the probable language and cultural barrier involved in all of the above, and this makes action twice as difficult.
Finally, international investigations are expensive, and police resources are not infinite. Even under the best of circumstances, pursuing someone scamming from China would be very expensive and I’m afraid it’s simply not good economics or management to spend $75,000 in police resources pursuing a criminal who stole $1,000 from you during an electronics order gone bad.
Scammers and counterfeiters in China rely on the difficulty you will have in complaining to anyone with any jurisdiction to make money.
What options are available to me if I’m willing to take the time to pursue them?
First and foremost, of course, you can use the equalizing power of the internet. Post in forums such as this one, and other appropriate forums, warning others about the scammer. Post as many details as possible, in as many appropriate places as possible, in order to maximize the chances that another would-be customer finds your information. I emphasize that you post in appropriate places, such as business to business forums, buyer forums and consumer complaint forums. Do not randomly spam the entire internet with your post. Posting your warning at a recipe sharing forum you’ve never visited before does not help your cause, it only makes you look like a spammer. Please read the posting guidelines and become familiar with the forum’s purpose before deciding whether to post. Be polite. Keep your language clean, stick to the facts as much as possible, and tempting as it is, refrain from lumping all Chinese businesses in the same category. Filling your posts with angry tirades, racial slurs, cultural slurs, broad insults or profanity only serves to make your warning weaker, or worse, makes you look like an angry nutter who should be ignored. Your personal blog, website or similar can also be an effective way to easily share your warning with online friends or strangers who may be searching for information.
You can report this as internet, advance fee or commercial fraud to sites such as www.IC3.gov and www.ftc.gov or similar sites. For example, Canada has a site dedicated to online fraud reports called phonebusters.ca and many countries have federal trade commission websites that allow you to file such complaints by filling out a web form. These sites are primarily dedicated to gathering statistics and raising awareness, however, and it is extremely unlikely (and I emphasize this) that reporting your situation to the site will result in anything so substantial as an in-depth investigation, much less an arrest. And even an arrest and conviction would not necessarily mean you would be paid restitution. Even if you did get that ideal outcome, expect that it would take years from beginning to end.
You can also try contacting the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Their website is at http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/contactus.shtmland they can be emailed by filling out the form at http://gzly.mofcom.gov.cn/website/pu…nd_mail_en.jsp Again, don’t expect that this will necessarily lead to a resolution. While we’ve been asking scam victims to contact the Ministry to make them aware of how common these scams are and how much damage they are doing to China’s business reputation, we can really find no indication that they have the will or the ability to pursue these scammers in any substantial way. We’ve yet to hear of any of these victims receiving any follow up from the Ministry. (Note: We’ve explicitly asked many, many victims to let us know if pursuing it with the Ministry led to anything positive. To my knowledge, we’ve received no such confirmation.)
We have heard that the Ministry is somewhat helpful in confirming the legitimacy of companies before you do business with them, but to be honest, if you have little experience in buying from China, you had best invest in professional due diligence services or rely only on extremely trusted word of mouth for bulk commercial orders. If you are a consumer looking for a good deal on a single unit for personal use, look elsewhere.
You can attempt to report Chinese seller fraud to your local law enforcement or FBI field office, but they are likely to decline to take a report, since they do not have jurisdiction in China. Even if you could give the police the scammer’s home address, they cannot arrest without the cooperation of Chinese authorities. Some offices will take a report simply for statistics.
You could resort to civil or legal action, but this is difficult and expensive. You would likely spend several hundred times what you lost in retaining a lawyer to pursue a civil suit. Also, if you were scammed by a small non-delivery operation, chances are it’s a single totally anonymous person with a disposable bank account or false Western Union receiver identity, an anonymous webmail account and a prepaid cell phone. You would need extremely good luck to even find someone to sue, much less to present enough evidence for a judgment. Western Union, we often say, is the equivalent of dropping a bag of cash in an alley for a stranger. There will be no tracing it. A bank transfer to a personal bank account in China is little better. Once you have completed a bank transfer, you cannot reverse it without the consent of the recipient. I hardly think I need to point out that scammers rarely consent to return your money.
In order to file criminal charges, you either have to travel to China in person or designate a legal representative there to file the charges on your behalf. Again, expensive, probably much more expensive than eating your losses. In very special circumstances, though, this may be worthwhile. For example, if you were scammed by a more “gray area” or “semi-legit” operation that stuck you with inferior or non-functional merchandise, or passed off “lookalike” merchandise as the genuine article, or you have a friend, legal representative or employee fluent in Chinese who is located in or traveling to China, the threat of having them file a police report without a great deal of trouble or expense to you may prompt the scammer to refund your money. Similarly, if you are fluent in Chinese and traveling there, you may be able to file a police report. However, chances are, if you are a frequent traveler to China who is fluent in the language, you aren’t very likely to become entangled in a Chinese merchandise scam in the first place.