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Fake videos offer false hopes of love

By Cheng Si | China Daily | Updated: 2021-01-21 09:04
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Many middle-aged and senior women have become obsessed with an imposter who masquerades online as a well-known actor, but their addiction is causing family feuds. Cheng Si reports.

Cao Yongzhen was the perfect victim for a romantic scam. The 69-year-old had never had a relationship before she met her husband. They were married for a long time, but her husband died in an auto accident several years ago.

Depressed and lonely after the novel coronavirus outbreak prevented her from leaving her home and socializing, Cao's only emotional outlet was watching videos on Douyin, an online short-video platform also known as TikTok.

Her attention and heart were captured when she came across a video posted by "Jin Dong".

The video was a somewhat ridiculous affair, consisting of old footage of the well-know actor and an overdubbed voice that replaced Jin's original words.

The 44-year-old, whose fine acting skills and sculpted features-some people say he resembles Brad Pitt-have made him a big favorite with older women, probably never imagined he would appear in such a ridiculous video.

"He sang a song in his deep voice, and then said, 'You are part of my life, the one who can't be replaced'," Cao said, adding that it was the first time she had been addressed in such romantic tones.

Now, the imposter is not a far-fetched character for Cao-rather, he is a tender man who provides companionship and often "sings" to her and "whispers" words of love.

Estrangement, divorce

Cao is not the only older woman to be duped by these videos.

Huang Yu (not her real name) has fought to be reconciled with her husband after she became besotted with the imposter, according to reports on Jiangxi TV.

Her husband said: "She has been in a frenzy of indulgence with this character on Douyin since the start of last year. She watches the video clips day and night without even stopping to eat. Watching those clips has sent her mad."

Huang even left home for a "date" with "Jin" in Anshan, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, thousands of kilometers from her home in South China's Guangdong province.

"She said he had promised to give her an apartment and cash. It was a complete hoax, but she was trapped. I asked my younger son to follow her in case she got into danger," her husband said.

"We had quarrels, but they didn't change anything. I told her that once she left home, we wouldn't accept her anymore, but she insisted on leaving, saying that 'Jin Dong' would give her money. All we had to do was to buy a ticket and send her to him."

Zhu Ping, a 56-year-old from Huangshan, Anhui province, was addicted to videos posted by the imposter for about three months.

Reality bit in October, when her husband filed for divorce.

"I felt I was being unfaithful to my husband, actually, as I did fall in love with this imposter even after my daughter told me he was a fake," she said.

Recalling her first encounter, Zhu said that in July, she swiped on a video featuring a handsome man who said he was lonely and longed for companionship.

"He said he was Jin Dong. I knew him from his TV work, but I never thought he would want companionship from me," Zhu said. "His words made me think of my own experience because I also longed for companionship when my daughter returned to work outside of Huangshan in June."

She said her daughter stayed with her for six months during the height of the coronavirus epidemic. They often visited the supermarket together, and her daughter showed her how to download Douyin as they recalled the happy times they had shared.

"I felt like we had gone back in time to when she was a child who always attached herself to me," Zhu said. "I felt lost and frustrated when she left in June, so I watched short videos online to kill time."

Zhu said that she didn't know whether she felt love or just dependence. "I thought it was love, but when my husband asked for a divorce I realized that I had become trapped in my imagination," she said. "It may have just been an outlet for my loneliness."

Li Yihuan, a 29-year-old accountant from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, was incredulous when she learned that her mother was besotted with the imposter.

"The videos are just too fake to believe. I never thought anyone would get trapped in them," she said. "I thought it was a joke, but when I read more about it, I felt it was kind of reasonable, especially for middle-aged women whose lives-as far as I can tell-are boring or depressing as their kids are working far from home."

Li said her mother became obsessed with mahjong after she left home to attend university in 2010. "I'm my family's only child, and my mother spent all her time taking care of me rather than working. Playing mahjong was an outlet for her loneliness," she said.

She said she sort of understood how Cao and Huang became infatuated, but warned of the dangers of such obsessions.

"They need their family members to help get them out of these daydreams or it will lead to poor family relationships or even psychological problems," she said.


Visually, such hoaxes are clumsy. The crudely made videos "borrow" the face of a celebrity, actor or famous TV anchor, for example, and are overdubbed by an imposter using Mandarin or a local dialect.

The people behind the videos lure middle-aged women, or, more rarely, men to give the thumb-ups to their posts by using fancy video tricks and honeyed words.

Their aim is to sell products or defraud their followers by persuading them to add the account on WeChat and then asking for "donations". Some followers have spent tens of thousands of yuan.

"In September, my mother was crazy about buying products sold by this man on Douyin. It was a dark moment for our family," said Chen (not his real name), a 30-something from Jiangxi province.

"I know my parents' relationship is terrible because my father becomes violent when he drinks," he said. "I even suggested they divorce, even though it would bring shame on the family."

Chen's mother is a housewife with three children, but he is the only child still living at home.

"My father has beaten mom for decades, but she never stands up to the violence. I know she endures it to protect my siblings and me," he said. "But things started to change when I bought her a smartphone in February."

He said his mother spent almost half a day swiping on the video clips, becoming obsessed with them.

"At first, I didn't take it seriously. She loves watching TV series, so I thought she might be a little crazy about the actor Jin Dong," he said.

"However, things got out of control after she started buying items via the imposter. She claimed they were gifts from him, but she had bought them herself. She had been brainwashed."

Cycle of deception

The hoax continued even after the real Jin Dong issued an announcement on his management's Weibo account in October in which he said he had not opened accounts on Douyin or any other short-video platforms.

The hoaxers have infringed on the real Jin Dong's personality rights, as enshrined in China's Civil Code, and damaged his reputation. His management said the perpetrators will be sued when they are eventually identified.

Despite that threat, it seems like an unending cycle of deception.

When one fraud is uncovered, the perpetrators simply move on and continue their activities by changing the names on the accounts and impersonating other celebrities, such as Dong Qin, an anchor with China Central Television, and Jack Ma, founder of the internet giant Alibaba.

In an interview with CCTV, cybersecurity expert Pei Zhiyong said the fraudsters will continue to register accounts tailored to specific audiences as long as they can profit from the deception.

He said the swindlers usually identify a target group first. "For example, if the target group is seniors, they will choose a celebrity who is popular with that demographic and make fake videos to lure them," he said.

Chen, from Jiangxi, said the main reason his mother fell for the imposter was her poor understanding of her smartphone and her curiosity about the device.

"She hadn't used a smartphone before I bought her one," he said. "I spent a week teaching her how it worked, but initially she had problems using it, charging it and buying items online. She got used to the phone around May and quickly fell into the fraudsters' trap."

A long-standing problem is that seniors have less access to the internet and smartphones, making them less experienced and more vulnerable when faced with such hoaxes.

Government figures show that the number of netizens had reached 932 million by June, with 99.2 percent accessing the internet via smartphones. Internet users age 50 and older accounted for 22.8 percent of China's online population, a rise from 16.9 percent in March.


Experts say psychological counseling is vital to ensure middle-aged people and seniors are kept safe from such hoaxes.

Ma Xiquan, a doctor of clinical psychology with Shanghai East Hospital at Tongji University, said the information overload in modern society can overwhelm middle-aged people and seniors, and may result in psychological problems if not addressed.

"Anybody can experience confusion, psychologically or even psychosomatically. It's quite normal to have a sense of loneliness because of a lack of close relationships, but most people can fight these feelings in different ways. However, those who lack plentiful social activities may face bad psychological problems," he said.

Ma added that middle-aged women who become besotted with the fake Jin may overcome the obsession if they can build positive relationships with people, in addition to consulting doctors.

"Get yourself connected with society, talk with other people and regulate your daily life. That will relieve the psychological problems," he said.

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