The following was originally published in the Shenzhen Daily. I have added a little more information for clarity and an analysis to the end.
DOZENS of expats in Shenzhen have been swindled out of tens of thousands of yuan in a United Airlines fraud case allegedly perpetuated by a well-known Shenzhen international student, an investigation by the Shenzhen Daily has discovered.
“My mother was stranded in Rome,” said one victim named Rose. “We had to pay thousands of dollars to get her back home to the United States.”
People interviewed for this article asked not to be identified by their full names.
The person accused of the scam, Cansu Uzcan (also known as Jansu Uzcan), is attending Shenzhen University and allegedly used a stolen credit card to purchase flights while selling the flights to Shenzhen expats at discounted rates. Victims deposited cash into Chinese bank accounts under Uzcan’s name or the name of her boyfriend Sean Champion.
Some of the people Uzcan approached were cautious initially, but after booking the flights through Uzcan, United Airlines emailed the victims directly to confirm the flights. Some were even able to apply the flights to their United Airlines Mileage accounts. After several people successfully completed flights booked through Uzcan, the number of expats purchasing discounted flights through her grew quickly.
But on September 2 people noticed that their flights were being canceled by United Airlines.
Some who were halfway through their trips were told by United Airlines that they had to pay for the full cost of their flight – often double or triple the amount of money they paid Uzcan – in order to return home.
Some travelers arrived at the airport before finding out their flight had already been canceled. “I was told I would have to pay over US$3,000 to take my flight,” Seth said. “I only paid US$500 for it in the first place.”
At least two dozen people contacted Uzcan through WeChat and email to find out what happened. At first, she said that United’s system had been hacked and she returned some of the money, according to the victims.
By the end of September, she began blocking the WeChat accounts of people who had booked flights through her.
United Airlines has since started contacting people who completed flights or attached their United Airline Mileage accounts to flights that weren’t taken. According to letters from United Airlines sent to the victims, the people who booked flights through Uzcan violated the airlines terms of service because Uzcan was using a stolen credit card to book the flights.
United Airlines said the victims are liable for flights they took because United was never paid for the flights by the credit card company. United Airlines has also nullified all the mileage accounts connected with the scam.
“I lost over 100,000 miles I had saved,” another victim named Ariyana said. “United Airlines is saying that I owe them thousands of dollars. The stress has been unimaginable. I had to hire a lawyer. I don’t know when I’ll be able to recover financially. I won’t be able to go home for Christmas this year.”
“United Airlines has been terrible to all of us,” Rose continued. “They are treating us like criminals.”
“United Airlines allowed this apparently fraudulent card to be used for months but are now blaming us for their lack of oversight and responsibility,” said a victim named Jayton.
Several of the fraud victims have reached out to law enforcement officers in China, the U.S. and Canada. While all three countries are investigating the case, they claim there is little they can do. “Most of the transactions were conducted through WeChat,” a Canadian police officer said. “Anyone could have been behind the screen.”
Investigations are ongoing.
Many people have asked how this could happen. How could so many expats be convinced to deposit their money into someone else’s bank account so easily?
The expat community is small. Even though there are thousands of expats in Shenzhen alone, we are all connected. Everyone knows everyone else through someone. We are all also very Internet savvy and keep in touch with each other. Many times, we feel we are “in this together.” Living overseas is not easy, so we are always trying to help each other. Giving each other tips and tricks to make life easier and save money is extremely common.
When Cansu said she could help fellow expats save money through booking flights, we believed her. She is also very well-known. Many expats vouched for her because they know her through Shenzhen University. I actually met her several months before when she organized an event as part of the International Cultural Industries Fair.
We didn’t have a reason not to trust her.
At least for me, I didn’t lose that much (about US$500). I chalk it up to a learning experience. But some of the people I quoted in the article and many others lost a lot more money and are facing legal issues with United Airlines.
At this point, even if nothing legal can happen to Cansu Uzcan, United Airlines needs to stop treating the victims of her scam as criminals. She took advantage of the trust and community expats in Shenzhen have built, but United is continuing to ruin lives by re-victimizing the people Cansu took advantage of.
United Airlines needs to reinstate the mileage accounts of the victims at least – at most they need to refund the people who were swindled by Cansu Uzcan.
What do you think? Have you ever fallen victim to a scam while living overseas? Let me know in the comments.