Scammers and swindlers with accents

« previous post | next post »

The focus of this post is the nature and modus operandi of the piànzi 騙子 ("swindler; scammer").

According to this article in Chinese, scammers do not speak good Mandarin because having an "accent" enables them to carry out target screening.  Such an argument may seem like a bit of a stretch, but let's see how this supposedly works out through the eyes of two Mandarin speaking PRC citizens who have been the intended victims of the schemes of such piànzi 騙子, who pose as representing banks and other financial institutions, public security bureaus, and so forth.


The article suggests that there are three reasons why phone scammers speak in strong topolect accents rather than standard Mandarin:1. Accent serves as a "mechanism of filtration", because those who are not sensitive enough to non-Mandarin accents and who can't recognize what is or is not Mandarin are more prone to fraud. 2. The scammers are simply not capable of speaking standard Mandarin given the current situation of Mandarin popularization in China. The scammers are more likely to be unschooled, and they usually share the same accent. 3. It is because of the high illiteracy rate in China that many people can't tell frauds from reliable phone calls made by authentic institutions.

I think the article's explanation makes some sense to a certain extent because in most cases, the staff of banks, government bureaus, census offices, courts, and police, etc., whom scammers often impersonate are required to speak standard Mandarin when making phone calls. As a result, most people would assume that the caller must be a scammer if he/she speaks in broad accents. And those who can't tell topolects from Mandarin and who lack the opportunity to get to know this common sense (that Mandarin is used in such calls when they are genuine) are thus more likely to be deceived. This point of view reflects, if not strengthens, the absolute domination of Mandarin and marginalization of topolects in China, and I think it unfairly associates the inability of speaking and recognizing Mandarin with ignorance and low intelligence.   
Personally, I don't think the scammers deliberately use topolect accents instead of Mandarin when making phone frauds.  It's just the way they talk in everyday life.
The reasons given in the article make sense. Most members of a swindler group are from the same village. Such schemes are a popular form of business at the beginning of their growth, like other legal township business in China, especially in the southern provinces. Then the swindlers find it's an efficient way to lock in their victims. For most of the swindle calls I received, the speakers had an accent of the southern provinces. There was only one exception when I received a call of a woman with Beijing accent who sounded about forty or fifty asking me to pay a visit to the police station in the area of my former work unit. I almost believed her, but when I called back, it was an invalid number. Still I can't understand what profit the swindler can make by asking me to pay a visit to a police station? In the past 2-3 years, I haven't received any calls from swindlers. Instead, it is the calls from real estate agents that favor me from time to time now.

Other respondents point out that some swindlers and scammers do speak decent Mandarin, but they are definitely few in number and not nearly so successful as those who speak heavily accented topolects.

In my estimation, the article makes a lot of dubious, if not specious, assumptions about people who speak with accents.  My guess is that a deeper motivation for the writing of this article is that its authors lament the low percentage of people in China who actually speak standard Mandarin.  If you watch videos of newscasts or unrehearsed street speech on social media in China — e.g., recordings of people reacting to the floods in Henan — much of it is very hard to understand if you only know standard Mandarin.  Henan accent is thus strongly marked — even though Henan is smack dab in the center of the Mandarin speaking areas of China — and, to one degree or another, constitutes a barrier to free and unimpeded communication with persons from other parts of the country.  Because the authors of the article are disappointed by the low level of language unification throughout China, they attempt to stigmatize non-MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) speech as associated with disreputable and even criminal types.  The converse of all this besmirching of accented speech is that people who speak MSM are more intelligent and law-abiding.

In my estimation, the situation surrounding topolectal speech usage in the PRC is far more complex than that presented in the cited article and needs to be treated more sensitively from sociolinguistic and historical angles if we are to arrive at a true appreciation of what it signifies.  And this is not even to mention the matter of completely different Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages in the PRC!


Selected readings

[h.t. Donald Clarke; thanks to Yijie Zhang, Tong Wang, and Chenfeng Wang]


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 11:25 am

    Unrelated to the question you're investigating, is "piànzi 騙子 ('swindler; scammer')" a borrowing from Ponzi, or is the similarity coincidental?

  2. KeithB said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 11:42 am

    At first glance I thought this was going to be how folks with British accents are successful con-men when aimed at Americans.

  3. ycx said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 11:51 am

    It should also be noted that while it's very plausible that the article was written to demean certain topolect speakers, their assertion that the scammers are using it for target screening is also very reasonable and has been previously researched.

    Microsoft Research's article about Nigerian scammers explains in detail how stating that they are from Nigeria actually helps increase the profit of scammers per unit time spent scamming.

    @Dick Margulis, I doubt the two are related, since the English term was popularised by the eponymous scammer in the 1920s, whereas the Chinese term is used multiple times as chapter titles in a Qing era Chinese novel in 1910.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 12:27 pm

    @ycx, thanks. Coincidence it is, then. I don't even pretend to read any form of Chinese on television. There's usually some interesting tidbit for an ignoramus like me to glean from Victor Mair's posts, so I persist in perusing them.

  5. Daniel Barkalow said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    In general, bank representatives (worldwide) are expected to code switch from however they talk informally to a formal register for conducting bank business. It's not the informal language is wrong or worse, but it's contextually-inappropriate. (For that matter, there are plenty of comedy skits about lawyers inappropriately adopting formal language at the dinner table.)

    For that matter, if someone is being interviewed about their experiences with the floods in Henan, they'd probably be less credible if they were speaking MSM (are they really local civilians?), even if they work as bank representatives and speak MSM in their official capacity.

  6. Theophylact said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 3:01 pm

    Is this the equivalent of the semiliterate emails used by scammers? Perhaps it's ineptitude, but perhaps it's a filter to strain out the well-schooled and less gullible, thus increasing the chance of a successful swindle.

  7. KevinM said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

    Exactly. The badly spelled, obviously phony email of the "Nigerian prince" variety is precisely that — a filtering device. Those advance-fee scheme emails are never improved, because their poor quality is a feature, not a bug. The sender is trolling for those dumb or gullible enough to respond to that kind of email. Even recipients with minimal sophistication will probably catch on after a few messages are exchanged and ultimately decline to pay, wasting the scammers' time. I first saw this explained in "Think Like a Freak," the follow-up to "Freakonomics"; the authors, S Levitt and S Dubner, were reporting the research of Microsoft Research computer scientist Cormac Herley. There are a number of priceless examples of humans or chatbots who simply lead the scammers on, driving them crazy until they surrender, "Ransom of Red Chief" style.

  8. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    July 28, 2021 @ 8:38 pm

    I saw that part of the point I want to make has already been brought up by ycx, but the principle is more general – it has been shown that poorly-written scam and phishing mail in general is more profitable because it turns away less easily scammed targets before scammers invest costlier resources.

    So while it is unfortunate how it allows the gov’t to advance its narrative about the speakers of these languages, their basic premise seems plausible and correct to me. Their further inferences are not ultimately justified, but that requires an unfortunately nuanced argument on top of a much more basic and easily formulated observation, which is a regrettably weak position in an argument.

  9. WGJ said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 2:17 am

    Accent isn't the only thing that gives scammer away – so does vocabulary. Here is a recent example of someone recogning a Taiwanese scammer (using a Shanghai phone number) because he uses a word for Mainland (内地 or 内陆) that's different from the one commonly used in Mainland (大陆, for legal and political context also 境内):

  10. Michael Watts said,

    July 29, 2021 @ 7:43 pm

    According to this article in Chinese, scammers do not speak good Mandarin because having an "accent" enables them to carry out target screening. Such an argument may seem like a bit of a stretch

    As several other commenters have pointed out, this is the same argument that is generally felt to explain why scam emails are the way they are. It is widely believed everywhere.

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    July 30, 2021 @ 5:10 pm

    Still I can't understand what profit the swindler can make by asking me to pay a visit to a police station?

    If the visit is made at a specified date and time, the scammers will know one's home is likely to be empty and vunerable to burglary at that time?

  12. The Other Mark P said,

    August 5, 2021 @ 11:40 pm

    Still I can't understand what profit the swindler can make by asking me to pay a visit to a police station?

    Because a likely target would ask "how do I get out of it?" perhaps.

RSS feed for comments on this post