Too good to be true – Online scams in Taiwan

Too good to be true – Online scams in Taiwan

By Wei-Ping Li, PhD

Online scams have become a significant concern in many countries. Despite increased government attention to this issue, scam methods always seem to be evolving, rendering their problems a constant pain. Online frauds are not strangers to the Taiwanese's daily lives, either. Some of these scam techniques are common in many parts of the world, while others target Taiwan's unique mindsets and socioeconomic situations. In response to the increasing prevalence of online fraud, Taiwan has enacted legislation that places joint liability on internet service providers and social media platforms to deter some types of schemes. However, it will take time to determine whether the new safeguards are effective.

Recently, an article in the New York Times pointed out that receiving messages that are suspicious of being scams seems to be a part of ordinary American life. Several media outlets also covered scam problems in various countries. Taiwan is no exception. Statistics provided by the Taiwanese National Police Agency show that the number of fraud cases reported to the police has been around 23,000-24,000 per year from 2018-2021, but with a sharp increase in 2022 and 2023. According to the police, a majority of the fraud cases happened on social media.

The number of fraud cases reported to the Taiwanese police from 2018 to 2023. Source: Taiwanese National Police Agency

The Taiwanese National Police Agency said that the most common type of fraud in 2023 was “investment fraud,” which exploited the Taiwanese's enthusiasm for short-term investment in the stock market. Scammers often impersonate celebrities to post announcements on Facebook and Instagram or send private messages via texts or messaging apps like LINE, claiming to share stock investment advice and promote “stock investment clubs” established by the scammers. Once victims join the “stock investment clubs,” the scammers ask them to register with fake websites or apps. 

Meanwhile, the scammers continue to disseminate stories about lucrative investment returns in the group, leading victims to believe that the investment is real and profitable. In most cases, victims are persuaded to transfer funds to accounts designated by the scammers. At first, the victims would see small investment returns that validated the scammers’ claims, making them more ready to pour money into the “investment accounts.” However, after spending a large sum of money on the “investment,” the victims will suddenly discover that the scammers are no longer reachable, and the money that they have invested disappears. According to the National Police Agency, 31.13% of fraud cases in 2023 fell under the category of “investment fraud.”

Other kinds of scam messages often posted on social media popular in Taiwan, such as Facebook, Instagram, and LINE, are so-called “one-page scam posts” or “one-page fraud websites.” The term "one-page" refers to the tactic whereby fraudulent content and links are shown on social media posts, which leads victims to other web pages that collect victims’ personal information or trick victims into buying fake products. 

One of the most recent scam examples is Facebook posts claiming that a team at Academia Sinica, the most prominent research institution in Taiwan, has developed a new medicine that ultimately cures Type I and Type II diabetes. Several identical Facebook posts have surged to share videos from genuine TV news footage covering diabetes research and the Academia Sinica team. A link is also attached to the posts for viewers who “want to know more about the details.” Viewers who click on the link will then be directed to a website that asks viewers to provide personal information. The website also requests that viewers connect with the LINE messaging app so that they can receive the new products. 

This is a typical instance of fake posts that collect personal information for further schemes. The Taiwan FactCheck Center discovered that this kind of post assembles information from many sources, such as the aforementioned news clip, making the claim appear genuine. As a matter of fact, the Academia Sinica team is still conducting clinical trials on the medicine and has never marketed it as a product. In addition, the Facebook group pages have revealed several traces of being a con trick. For example, they are often newly established; the website that asks for viewers’ personal information has only one page and lacks details either about the team or the drug.     

A screenshot of a videoDescription automatically generated
A screenshot of a Facebook page advertising a fake diabetes drug. The post claims that “Diabetes can be cured! It’s absolutely effective for Type I and Type II diabetes patients.” The post shows a genuine video from a Taiwanese news outlet and provides a link for those “who want to know the details.” Actually, the scammer misappropriated the news video and made fraudulent claims. 

In addition to scam posts that trick users into buying false products, another prevalent type of social media scam is one that offers free in-app stickers and emoticons. This type of post would include a link directing users to a website where they could download app stickers used in online conversations. Nonetheless, the catch is that users must complete surveys about their personal information or join chat groups. According to experts interviewed by the Taiwan FactCheck Center, scammers use the website to obtain personal information. Furthermore, once people join the group chats, scammers would use the chats to deliver additional scam messages. 

A screenshot of a scam message spread on LINE that invites users to visit a website to download in-app stickers. 

Sometimes, scammers spread social media posts, disguising themselves as well-known enterprises or government agencies distributing lottery tickets in exchange for users’ information. To win users' trust, these posts and websites use URL addresses that resemble the domain names of government agencies to deceive those who are not cautious enough.    

Over the past months, the Taiwan FactCheck Center has observed another scam scheme exploiting victims who had previously fallen into scam traps: the scammers take advantage of victims’ urgent need for legal help in retrieving money, posing themselves as “anti-scam” legal teams and offering victims advice and assistance. Through this scheme, the swindlers dupe victims into paying an “advance fee” or “consultation fee.” Some even further scare victims and trick them into transferring more money by claiming that the victims have become accessories to financial crimes. 

Several fan pages of the self-proclaimed “anit-scam teams” have been established on Facebook to push the scam posts. They invite users to chat through the Messenger app and provide further instructions for victims. Similar to other scam schemes, these “anti-scam” Facebook pages provide very little information other than pictures of the “lawyers,” strange Gmail addresses, links to websites, and incorrect addresses of the “law firms.” 

Interestingly, some scam pages share the same address that belongs to a building in Kaoshiung. Although this building really exists, there are no such “law firms” in it. Moreover, the addresses on those Facebook pages are also used by websites of other “law firms” claiming to have offices in Singapore. Nevertheless, the addresses of these Singaporean “law firms” are dubious, and their “lawyers” are not registered in either Singapore or Taiwan. The Taiwan FactCheck Center also discovered that the profile pictures of the “lawyers” displayed on the pages or websites are taken from the profiles of lawyers at real law firms in China or Macau or even generated by AI. Currently, Taiwanese police authorities have classified some of the websites as "scam websites."   

A person in a hoodie looking at a screenDescription automatically generated
A Facebook scam page claims that the “anti-scam” team of the “hacker association” can help those who have been duped by online swindlers retrieve their money. 

To address the growing issue of online fraud, particularly “investment scams,” Taiwanese lawmakers amended the Securities Investment Trust and Consulting Act (證券投資信託及顧問法) in 2023 and have imposed legal obligations on social media companies and internet providers. Article 70-1 of the Act requires social media platforms and search engines such as Meta, YouTube, and LINE to disclose or provide specific information about the publishers or sponsors of advertisements involving securities investment. Social media companies should not publish ads that violate the law on their platforms; additionally, once notified by judicial authorities, they should remove the ads or restrict access to fraudulent content. Social media platforms that break the law will also be held jointly and severally accountable for the damages incurred by victims of fraud.

According to the Criminal Investigation Bureau, in the second half of 2024, they asked social media companies to take down almost 50,000 advertisements related to investment schemes. Among the fraudulent posts being taken down, more than 90% were spread on Facebook. Nevertheless, the Criminal Investigation Bureau said that the same ads would later reemerge on social media after they were removed. The Bureau urged social media companies to take more actions to help tackle the prevailing scam problem. 

In addition to the government's amendment of regulations, the banking industry has been more attentive to irregular financial activities and has warned potential victims. Civil society has also worked to disseminate anti-scam information to the public and publish updated alerts. However, online scam schemes have become more varied and appear to never stop evolving. The frauds identified by fact-checkers are just a few examples of common forms of fraud. As news reporting has revealed, there are even more traps and terrible cases that endanger the lives of victims. For average individuals, diligent information verification and strong vigilance—possibly tinged with paranoia—are always necessary when it comes to thwarting scam schemes.

Wei-Ping Li is a research fellow at the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

Claire Chen (Managing Editor at the Taiwan FactCheck Center), Mary Ma (fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center), and Rogge Chen (fact-checker at the Taiwan FactCheck Center) contributed to this analysis.