Online hostesses spin tales to reel in tips from the lonely elderly

Wan Lixin
The law doesn't seem to have a clear voice on when online succor becomes trawling for suckers.
Wan Lixin

"The so-called singing is just lip-syncing, while the dancing is just a little swinging of the hips," said Gao Feng, a resident in the Sichuan Province city of Chengdu. "But my elderly father just adores her."

The object of her father's obsession is a live-streaming hostess, who finagled him out of more than 60,000 yuan (US$8,200) in "tips" last year.

These seductive online hostesses often ask for "gifts" in "tipping competitions" where he who pays gains prestige.

Tipping online idols is not a practice confined to the elderly, but detractors argue that wily hosts and hostesses are deliberately targeting vulnerable, lonely seniors in their livestreaming activities.

Family members often aren't around enough to monitor what goes on in a realm that provides some regulations related to juveniles but none explicitly for the elderly population.

It's so easy if you are old, alone and using a mobile phone to access livestreaming and get caught in the tipping trap. It becomes an addiction.

Gao recalled to Legal Daily how her father began viewing short videos in 2021 and began tipping hostesses to the tune of about 1,000 yuan a month. Seeing how pleased her father was with these activities, she decided not to make a fuss about it.

However, she began to grow uneasy when her father was being steadily elevated in the pecking order of viewers and then became alarmed when she discovered he was tipping multiple hostesses in 2022, with over 60,000 yuan going to one hostess alone.

Intrigued by his obsession, she spent a week watching the livestreamer and found that the hostess was deft at creating an appealing online persona by telling tales of woe.

For instance, the hostess said she was divorced with two kids and was forced to do odd jobs to make ends meet.

"In addition to the tipping, my father has also added the hostess to his social media account so that they communicate through video calls," Gao said.

When livestreaming sessions began, she would alert elderly viewers to watch and implore them to support her.

When Gao finally confronted her father about these activities, he reacted in a hostile manner, saying he would disown her.

One blogger calling herself Liang Zhou said she used to oversee a livestreaming business on a platform and the elderly were a prime target.

She once joined a chatroom incognito and heard how platitudes were used to charm lonely seniors.

Peng Huamao, a psychology professor from Beijing Normal University, said in a recent interview with the newspaper that such livestreamers tap into the emotion void of many elderly.

It's very hard to get "tip" money refunded.

Gao tried appealing to one hostess directly, explaining that her father couldn't afford such extravagant tips, but she was rebuffed by the hostess, who told Gao to keep a closer eye on her father and stop pestering her.

Gao then turned to a specialized online consulting team who said they could help her get some of the money back, but only if her father consented. He refused to do that.

Gao then tried to get the money through a channel in the platform called "application for refunds for juveniles," but the documents she submitted were rejected as insufficient.

"Normally, if you want to get back the tipped money through the platform, you need to supply a myriad of materials, such as screen grabs showing a hostess explicitly soliciting a 'gift,' which I can't do because of my father's unwillingness to cooperate," said Gao.

Chang Sha, a lawyer with Beijing Jingdu Law Firm, said money can be refunded under three conditions.

The first are cases that involve juveniles or mentally incompetent adults. The second are cases where the tipping is misappropriated public fund. And the third occurs if tipping is done without the knowledge of a spouse, in which case the spouse may sue for cancellation of the gifting.

Chang cited another circumstance that might apply in Gao's case.

"If a host uses fraudulent practices to elicit gifts, then the (gifting) contract can be retracted, though there are complications in proving the existence of fraud," Chang said.

Zhao Zhanling, a lawyer from Beijing Weijia Law Firm, said that eliciting tips through a fabricated story – such as lying about illness, a family disaster or other hardships – could be deemed outright fraud and thus the gifting agreement nullified.

At the end of her tether, Gao issued an appeal to online platforms to set up a refund channel for the elderly who are in cognitive decline.

Where family members can prove that such tipping is based on online impetuosity, refunds should be allowed unconditionally. The regulatory apparatus, it seems, has yet to catch up to this responsibility.

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