What you need to know
'I'm Mi-Mi, 21 years old, 166 cm, 47 kg, 36-24-34, a student but moonlighting. I offer a bathing and massage service and compensated dating. 3,000 for 90 minutes, 7,000 for an overnight stay. Want to make an appointment?'
“I'm waiting for you, handsome guy,” Little Mi Mi messages. “Don't you want me? Hurry up! Give me your phone number.”
This latest in a string of formulaic missives comes through as I loiter on a dank street corner, poorly wired neon signs fizzling overhead like cicadas drowning in bucket of soda. It's spitting and thunder is cracking. A typhoon leers.
“Phone number! Quickly, give it me.” The messages don't let up. “You don't want to play? Little sister is tired. If you don't want to play, Mi Mi is going to bed.”
About an hour ago, Mi Mi hit me up with a wink on the dating app Skout. This was seconds after I had checked her profile. Before I knew it, she was asking me to friend her on Line – East Asia's messaging app of choice – and bombarding me with photos to ratchet up the titillation that began with her profile picture.
I couldn't believe my luck. Vulpine svelte, dolled up to the nines in figure clutching beer-girl clobber, and bush baby-eyed, thanks to the standard iris-widening contacts lenses favored in Taiwan, she is, to use the technical term, hot. Well, she would be, if she actually existed. Mi-Mi, you see, is literally a fantasy girl.
With more than 18,000 reported cases as of October, telecommunications scams are big business in Taiwan. The Central Investigation Bureau does not keep separate statistics for fraud committed via social media or messaging apps, and as an officer at the National Police Administration pointed out, victims of these rip-offs are understandably reticent to report their experiences. Still, it's clear that the desperation of some dating app hopefuls makes them the perfect quarry for scammers. The prevalence of Mi-Mi and her ilk on these apps indicates this kind of hustle has a reasonable success rate.
The scam kicks off in a number of ways. On an app such as Skout, the person might send you a wink, while on Tinder or Blendr, you could receive a notification that you have a match with someone you have liked. Often, you are simply alerted that someone has checked out your profile. You then check them out and see that they have a Line ID on their profile, often accompanied by an exhortation to “add me if you want to chat.” Once you do that, there's some small talk before the conversation proceeds according to a stilted script.
Here's Mi-Mi's opening gambit:
“I'm Mi-Mi, 21 years old, 166 cm, 47 kg, 36-24-34, a student but moonlighting. I offer a bathing and massage service and ‘compensated dating.’ 3,000 for 90 minutes, 7,000 for an overnight stay. Want to make an appointment?”
The fraudsters aren't a discriminatory bunch: They're just as happy to fleece foreigners as locals. With my elementary Chinese, I was able to cut to the chase pretty quickly. One phrase that had me copying and pasting to my dictionary app was yuanjiao (援交), an abbreviation of yuanzhu jiaoji (援助交際), which itself derives from the Japanese term enjo-kosai.
This practice, which has been translated as “compensated dating” refers to a sugar-daddy type giving money or buying luxury gifts for girls in exchange for companionship or sexual favors. The phenomenon surfaced in Taiwan in the late 1990s and, because most of these exchanges take place online, the concept has taken on a broader meaning here that can include prostitution via the Internet.
This probably helps explain the popularity of online gift card scams in Taiwan. While there are a variety of dating app ruses in Western countries, including straightforward requests for money and luring victims into outright robbery, one particular card trick seems to be unique to East Asia. It involves getting the victim to buy and then reveal the code on a card, which can then be redeemed online.
Australia got its first case last year, but it involved Chinese scammers and a student of Chinese descent. The FBI issued a warning about gift card scams around the same time, though most of the cases they flagged up involved quite different variations from the one that plagues dating apps in Taiwan. One popular Line-based gift-card scam involves hacking accounts, posing as the victim of the hack, then sending requests for cards to the person's friends.
For me, it was clear from early on that something was amiss. There were far too many young girls of a similar age and appearance with similar cutesy names and profile descriptions viewing and liking my profile or sending me winks. If they didn't have their Line ID right there on the profile – usually just a bunch of letters and numbers – they couldn't give it out fast enough once I engaged them.
Almost certain that this was dodgy, I decided to approach several of these “girls” at the same time. Their modus operandi was almost identical in every case down to the distinct language they used. Once you have expressed an interest in compensating them for their date, they ask where you live. By amazing coincidence, they live just down the road.
They use the Internet for reconnaissance of your vicinity, then claim they live near a certain landmark. I cottoned on to this because on one occasion, they referred to a building that no longer existed. Unfortunately for them, Google Maps hadn't been updated. In one case, I asked if they were near a park on the corner of a road where there isn't one and, probably not bothering to check properly, they said yes. Another time, I expressed my astonishment that they lived at the address they gave as that was the exact same building I lived in. The conversation was abruptly terminated.
Having discussed the matter with friends, and received various answers as to what the pay-off to the scam was, I decided to find out by taking things a step further with Mi-Mi. I was a little apprehensive, but street robbery is pretty much unheard of in Taipei, so I reasoned that as long as I was outside, things would be all right. That's how I ended up on that street corner in the drizzle.
I have been told to come to this spot and message when I arrive. Mi-Mi is claiming to work in a hostess bar here and there are indeed are couple in this location. However, the process was not without hurdles. I have been sent to two other street corners, told to send photos of my location, then informed I'm in the wrong place. Each time there's a delay before they redirect me while they scan Google Maps for another stage in this wild goose chase. Retrospectively I realize the purpose of this is likely two-fold: To find a plausible place and to have me frustrated and salivating like an expectant puppy.
I have been asked for my phone number during my previous attempts to suss out what the end game is. It's a precaution, they don't know if I'm a cop – one who's able to fake authentically stumbling Chinese, presumably. A friend is going to call me to confirm. On these occasions, I had lost my nerve. Might there not be a way for them to use my number for nefarious ends? I have close to zero in the way of ends to use nefariously, you understand, but still...
“Why don't you give me your number?” I ask.
“We have to make sure this isn't a police sting. This is safer. More convenient.”
She tells me that a friend needs to call and ask me a couple of questions and then we're good to go. Weighing up the possible consequences again, I decide to drop the digits.
A few minutes later a young man calls. “Brother, how are you? You want to see the young lady?”
“Have you seen one of our girls before?”
“OK, since this is your first time, I need to ask you to pay a deposit to be safe. You know what MyCard is”
“Sure,” I bluff.
“Go to the 7-11 and buy a 3,000-point card and then – ”
Just as he's getting to the punchline, the call cuts out. He calls back, but I'm busy searching online for MyCard and establishing exactly what the deal is. I call a friend, who confirms that it's a card used to purchase points for online games. She tells me the scammer will ask you to send a photo of the code on the card, allowing them to redeem the points then sell them on. After a bit more research, I confirm that this is exactly how it works.
But what of poor Mi-Mi? As I have been digging, a slew of messages has descended.
“What's going on, handsome guy? Don't you want me? If you don't want to play, I'm going to bed. Brother? I'm waiting for you...”
Editor: Edward White