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Phone scam: We know what you want to know

Friday, March 20th, 2009

dsc_2194Another one by the cell phone scam-buster.

Take a look at the picture. This baby beeped into my life the other day at 4am, just as I was getting ready to switch into deep sleep. I knew it was spam, but I couldn’t help the reflex. I stretched out one arm, opened one eye and mentally translated as follows:

“Do you want to know the content of somebody’s cell phone conversations? Just send us the person’s number, my company will do a  special card for you. Using this card you will be able to listen to all his calls. For complete info dial: etc.”

My first reaction of course was to run for my business cards drawer and pick a couple of cards from the section “competition”. If it is a public service it cannot be immoral, I thought, and they got it well deserved, those sneaky competitors who go around trying to snitch our projects.

But then I woke up a bit more and suddenly remembered: I am in China, and it is another one of those sms.  So I just mentally marked it for my blog collection and I went back to bed. Before I closed my eyes I still had the time to draw the follwing conclusions:

  1. This cannot possibly be true.  If it were, China Mobile would be facing thousands of lawsuits .
  2. But then, if there is one place in the World where this might be true, it is right here.
  3. Either way, the author is clever. I am sure there are loads of people out there calling the number right now. Nothing is more tempting than to know what you shouldn’t know…

So we will probaby be receiving more of these. And like I usually say in these cases: if there’s anyone out there willing to test the service for CNY, please go for it and let us know in comments.

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The Quick Loans of Mr. Wang’s

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

When I left China for the holidays I was pretty sure I would not manage to write a single line on the blog until my return. China is such a stimulating place that every day I am jotting down notes, and my blog runs 20 posts behind myself. In Europe the stimulus would stop - I thought- and I would get some rest.

As it turned out, I had forgotten the sms. I’ve been receiving a continous flow of text messages from China that have inpired me a good deal more than I would have wished. Every little spammy sms is a concentrate of Chinese characteristics, and one that tells a lot about the country if you read it carefully. Look at the one we have here, for example.

Exhibit 1 above is one of the first text messages that greeted me in 2009. It is an interesting one, and I thought I would blog it for its Chinese language and economics interest.

First of all, here is the translation:

Dear Sir,  the Nanguang Group in this city provides for those who lack funding small loans at 3% interest monthly , 10% yearly. Guarantee not needed. Interested call Manager Wang.

OK, this is not exactly news, quick loans spam have been coming in for a while already. I suppose anyone in Shanghai who gives his name card around as easily as I do gets the same, but surely I am the only foreigner who cares to read them all as they come. Because it is my mandarin homework.

This has allowed me to see the messages getting more frequent and more dodgy as the Crisis pushes into China over the last months. In the field of dodginess, this one sets a new high, featuring:

1 - Commas inserted in random places, probably to avoid automated searches for character strings.

2 - Interest of 3% monthly becoming 10% a year, when my financial calculator gives 43% yearly interest for a 3% monthly compound.

3 - Slightly more disturbing: as far as I have been able to ascertain on the internet, the Nanguang Group does not exist.

As a consequence of the financial Crisis official banks are tightening their conditions and it has become difficult for many Chinese to get a loan. This is the reason why “underground banks” (地下钱庄) seem to be flourishing these days.  Danwei recently reported that the government is planing to legalize private lenders, and set some limits to the interest they can ask. Obviously, Mr. Wang still hasn’t heard about this.

There has been a lot written about the parallel financial system of China, and how, from the beggining of reform, it has helped start many family businesses. However, this sms looks like the dark side of the system, and I would strongly advise everyone to stay away from these deals. If only for one reason: the loans are being offered indiscriminately on cell phones, which means that there is no real guanxi (network) contact between the lender and the borrower.

The main problem with these no-questions-asked credit is that somehow the lenders need to make sure that their loans don’t go bad.  In case of non performance, they cannot follow the legal procedures (since they are illegal) and they cannot appeal to a family network (since there is none). Surely they have some  convincing reasons to remind the debtors of their obligations.

So please stay out of trouble and do not call Mr. Wang.

Crisis and Old Shanghai

Friday, November 21st, 2008

I was writing just yesterday my latest Crisis article when I realized that in Shanghai we have our own economic weak link, with quite a lot of companies that are suffering as much as the Pearl River Delta workshops. I am speaking of foreign startups in Shanghai.

One of the things that makes Shanghai such an interesting place to live is her magnetic properties that attract all sorts of enrepreneurial metal from around the world. One can read a lot about succesful startups in well informed China blogs dealing with business, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Unless you live here, you can not even start to imagine the thousands of starting business ventures swarming the city. Even in the most modest of social events you will meet a good handful of CEOs in their 20s, always rich with ideas, and typically trying to figure out how to monetize them.

Most of these adventuruos foreigners struggle for a long time before eventually giving up and moving to new horizons. Others manage to run a sustainable business. Very few ever become rich.

But an unusually large number of them are actually going bust right now as a consequence of the Crisis. In the last few months since the summer, already three acquaintances have said farewell to me and to Shanghai, with their dreams broken and their companies bankrupt.

Now, it is probable that for Chinese economy, these bankrupcies won’t have the same impact as the ones on the Pearl River, but they do provide some colourful and very typically Shanghainese tales:

For example. I think of my friend who went to work one Monday to find out that there was no computer, and no chair and table, and no company at all, because the struggling Dutch owner and founder of the startup had been busy over the weekend trying to get the best value off the remaining assets before he disappeared out of the country. Fortunately, this girl was only doing an internship in Shanghai and, as last survivor of the company, she had the difficult task of assessing her own performance and grading herself before taking 2 extra free months to travel in China.

Some recent developments of this new trend can be seen also in this article by CER, which warns us against company-sponsored trips and team builidng events. Does your boss sound suddenly generous in the midst of financial turmoil?  Does it seem a bit odd that you have been invited to this expensive Team Building week up on the pastures of Heilongjiang? Don’t go. Chances are when you are back to Shanghai there is no accounting department left to submit your expenses claims. Or to pay your 2 months due of salary for that matter.

And all this makes me wonder: are we coming back to the good old times of the concessions? The times when only in Shanghai there were dozens of different national jurisdictions where crooks and adventurers of all sorts found the folds where they could flourish; when thousands of foreigners flowed into Shanghai with the most diverse schemes to get rich, usually involving, as Carl Crow would put it: “mixing other peoples money with their own”. Perhaps we never really left that period.

And this leads me straight to the Big Question, which foreigners in Shanghai have been asking themselves for the last hundred years, and which is still a recurrent subject of conversation here: Is it possible to get rich in China?

This is definitely a subject I will be blogging about soon. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that you read this book: “Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom”, by Carl Crow. Among many other things, you will see how little has changed, and how expats in Old Sahnghai answered to exactly the same questions as we ask ourselves today.

One last quote from the book that might help shed some light on the Question above:

Every foreigner went to China with a consciousness of his own [...] mental superiority and a smug satisfaction in the belief that there were many things he could teach the chinese.

To be fair, there are more and more foreigners, especially of the younger generations, coming in today with a serious disposition to learn what the chinese have to teach before they add their own grain of sand. But there are still too many left with the Old China Hand attitude who feel the need to enlighen the locals with their wisdom.

So, here is the first big clue to answer the Big Question: in 2008, just like in 1908, the (few) foreigners who get rich have taken the time first to learn from the country. See the Standard Oil back in the time, or Tudou’s Marc van Der Chijs today.

PS. If you are even slightly interested in China - and if you are reading this blog you probably are - do yourself a favour and get this book immediately from the Shanghai Foreign Language Library or from here.

PPS. If you are my personal friend or relative - and if you are reading this blog you probably are - then just give me a call and come over to my place, I will lend you the book.

Panic in the Morning

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Morning Daddy!

You know that feeling in the morning sometimes. You wake up with the lark, full of optimism to face a new day, and, before you even had the chance to smell the first espresso, trouble is knocking at your door.

It was just like that this morning when my cell phone beeped.

It was a message from my daughter.

Asking for money!

Man, I knew it was bound to happen some day, all this Shanghai nightlife business is confusing, one really can’t be expected to pay attention to details. And there you go: one more mouth to feed, one more creature in the world. That’s about as much as I can take at 7:23 in the morning.  I run down to the computer, rubbing my eyes, straight to my online bank website to get done with it before she starts calling for more.

Hey, hold on a sec. My daughter can’t speak chinese.She couldn’t be old enough to use a cell phone anyway.

Actually, what the hell, I don’t have a daughter!

It’s the lively Chinese phone scammer community, back in action. I can only think that they are so persistent because it pays once in a while. I mean, come to think of it, with all those spoilt girls running around getting into trouble and calling their busy daddies for money, and daddies losing track of their little Shanghai princesses.

It would be quite funny actually, if it didn’t happen so often. Scams and Spam make up for about 70% of the text messages I get in my phone every day! I hear it is about the same for most users in Shanghai.

Anyway, here is my translation: “Daddy: I lost my phone and my wallet, please wire urgently 1500RMB to this account number of my friend Wang, I will tell you the precise details one of these days.”  No “thank you”, no ” I love you”, no “kisses to mum”. Brilliant. These clever scammers know exactly how to impersonate a Shanghai princess!

PS. The phone number of the sender is displayed on the screen, in case someone feels like taking action against the scammers, and deliver us from this pest. I hear there are some very good law blogs around if you need legal advice.