A friend poses with a new Porsche? Be wary in an age of conceit, deceit

Lu Feiran
You browse through Moments on WeChat. There is a childhood chum in a video showing himself in a spanking new Lamborghini. Instant deflation. But all may not be what it appears.
Lu Feiran

You go home after a typical day at work, feeling somewhat bored, and browse through Moments on WeChat to catch up with your friends. And there on the screen is a childhood chum in a short video showing himself and a girlfriend in a spanking new Lamborghini.

Instant deflation.

But wait! All may not be what it appears. The video may just be a fake show of vanity.

Appearing nowadays on e-commerce platforms are sites that sell doctored pictures and videos for people to “show off” on their social networking pages.

The price of deceit is usually between 6 yuan (89 US cents) and 10 yuan.

On Taobao.com, a shop called Gratified Flags provides a series of such services. After customers pay for the service, they receive a WeChat ID for them to add. The contact invites the customers into a WeChat chat group, in which they can summon pictures and videos to post on Moments. In the past month alone, more than 100 people joined the group.

“We have a strong team that works around the clock to meet the needs of our clients,” says the owner of the shop, whose screen name is Ha. “We can make everything look as genuine as possible so that no one can discover that the videos or pictures are fake. And we have a huge database that includes tens of thousands of video templates.”

According to Ha, there are several tricks used to achieve “genuineness.” For example, if one wants to post photos during a trip abroad, the team can use software to add location information to the post, making it look like that the pictures are posted from a certain place.

If one wants to display a picture suggesting the purchase of some luxury item, like a yacht, contract names can be edited to suit and the expected posting date of the papers is shown in the photo.

For videos showing off a new car, a new home or attendance at a posh party full of celebrities, customers can add their own voices to videos, making it look like they are actually part of the imaginary scene.

Users of the services have different purposes. Some are just curious if deceit can be passed off as reality, while the more competitive may want to stir envy among friends and colleagues.

“WeChat is often used in workplaces, so your Moments posts are exposed to your colleagues and superiors,” says Han Shenjie, a white-collar worker in Shanghai, who once bought pictures to post on Moments. “Sometimes, we can’t help but want to leave better impressions by creating images on social media.”

Han says he just bought some scenery photos that were reportedly impossible to find on search engines, with location information. He said he wanted to give people the impression that he spends lots of his spare time hiking and sightseeing, despite the fact that he usually spends weekends at home with his cat, reading books.

“I don’t want my colleagues to think that I’m boring just because I’m an introvert,” he says.

Posting fake images can backfire, however.

A high school teacher in the Hunan Province capital of Changsha got into hot water after posting a Porsche as his on Moments. Parents questioned how someone on a teacher’s salary could afford a 1.75 million yuan sports car. Soon rumors spread that the teacher was earning more than 1 million yuan through extracurricular tutoring classes.

Since professional teachers are forbidden from doing paid tutoring in China, an investigation ensued. The teacher deleted the posting and admitted that the picture was a hoax.

Other risks include the leaking of personal information.

For instance, if people want to add location information to posts, they have to let the shop team log into their WeChat accounts to do the operation. That means the team could gain access to contact lists and other crucial information.

There is no law forbidding the sale of fake videos and pictures online, but authorities are concerned that some people who use them may have purposes beyond personal vanity.

Every year, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce carries out campaigns to crack down on online pyramid schemes. One of the more common is “WeChat merchants.”

These merchants usually sell health care products, cosmetics and training courses. Just like any pyramid schemes, they try to entice newcomers into the sales network by posting bogus displays of the fortunes they have made and products that are often as phony as a US$3 bill.

There’s no shortage of gullible victims all over the country. One case occurred in neighboring Jiangsu Province. Chen Zhihua, a vocational school graduate, posed as a hypnosis therapist and peddled his “lectures” through WeChat Moments. He claimed that people who managed to attract others to his lectures on WeChat could earn 1 million yuan a month. Within 15 months, 329 people from Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and other cities paid to peddle his lectures, putting more than 4.6 million yuan in Chens’ pocket. He was eventually sentenced to eight years in jail.

Since then, authorities in various cities and provinces, including Shanghai, have all reported cases that involved hundreds of victims.

The state administration has cooperated with Tencent, developer of WeChat, to monitor such merchant activity to uncover possible illegal schemes. And the Alibaba platform Taobao has recently shielded the search results of some keywords on its website, such as “show-off.” However, such dubious shops can still be found through other keywords, including WeChat Moments.

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