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Identity Crisis

Fraudsters are exploiting bureaucratic inertia over ID fraud

For nearly four years, a man wanted for murdering his mother evaded police with a series of false identities. The capture of 24-year-old Wu Xieyu at a Chongqing airport in April, with over 30 national ID cards in his possession, has once more drawn attention to the thriving illegal market in fake identities—and the bureaucracy than enables it.

According to an April report by CNR, authentic Chinese ID cards, many lost or stolen from their original holders, can easily be bought on social-media channels such as WeChat and Tencent QQ for as little as 500 RMB (35 USD). Millions of lost or stolen ID cards are sold annually, China Youth Daily reported in 2015; police in the city of Tianjin registered over 190,000 such losses in 2014 alone.

In October 2017, a Zhengzhou resident surnamed Sun received a lawyer’s letter, warning her of overdue loans in two provinces that someone applied for using an ID card that had been stolen from Sun three years ago. Many others have reported similar stories of their identities being used to borrow money, register companies, or commit crimes. One problem is that older ID cards, issued before 2004, feature a “non-contact” chip and cannot be deregistered even after cardholders report their loss to the police and get a new one.

One seller told CNR that he could fabricate a new ID for 200 RMB, which would only be detectable by police, rail, and aviation systems, or organizations that have access to the official police database. Phone companies and banks, however, rarely check the holder’s identity, often enabling criminals to register burner phone numbers and bank accounts under stolen IDs for activities such as fraud, bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion.

In 2018, after being disqualified from an affordable housing program, a man named Feng Liming from Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, found that two companies had been fraudulently registered under his name, one of which owed 3 million RMB in taxes.

While police say that only the criminals and relevant government departments should be held accountable for identity theft, according to Article 280 of China’s Criminal Law, it’s still extremely difficult for victims of the fraud to exculpate themselves.

Feng’s yearlong effort to prove his innocence had proven fruitless until his case was picked up by CCTV in February 2019: The taxation authority told him he can only deregister the company without paying the taxes if the local market supervision administration confirms that the company was not his. Feng pointed out the obviously faked signatures on the papers, but authorities suggested that he file a lawsuit to prove it.

However, as lawyer Qi Wenjin told CCTV, Feng could “hardly win” a lawsuit without knowing who stole his identity. Although the authorities eventually caved in to media pressure and allowed Feng to clear his name, ID theft remains a problem that nobody wants to identify with.

Identity Crisis is a story from our issue, “Funny Business.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


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