Cyber Espionage: A New Trend of Turning Chinese or Other Nation-State Scam Victims into Spies

Helping Organizations Understand the Risks of Employees Who Become Involved in Relationship Scams

Primary Category: Cyberwar

Author:
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

About This Article

In an era of increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, Chinese scammers have adopted a new tactic: converting victims into corporate spies. This insidious method begins with scammers contacting victims through emails or social media, establishing trust through seemingly legitimate interactions.

Once trust is secured, the scammers manipulate victims into providing sensitive corporate information under the guise of legitimate activities or lucrative roles. This information, often perceived by the victims as harmless, is then relayed back to the scammers and potentially to state actors, posing significant risks to businesses and institutions.

Recognizing the value of their information and implementing robust security measures, employee training, and vigilant monitoring are essential steps for organizations to protect themselves against this evolving threat.

Cyber Espionage: A New Trend Of Chinese Scam Victim Spies - 2024

The New Face of Cyber Espionage: How Chinese Scammers Are Converting Victims into Corporate Spies

In an era where cyber threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated, a new and troubling tactic has emerged: Chinese, and possibly North Korean scammers are not just defrauding individuals and companies—they are turning their victims into spies.

This form of cyber espionage is especially insidious as it leverages the trust and access of employees within their organizations, feeding confidential information back to the scammers who then pass it on to interested parties, potentially including state actors.

Let’s how these scams operate, their impact on businesses and institutions, and how to recognize and mitigate this growing threat.

The Value of Information

Today, a global state of conflict exists around the world, and information has become an invaluable asset. Nations and non-state actors alike leverage intelligence to gain strategic advantages, influence public opinion, and disrupt adversaries.

The rise of cyber warfare and digital espionage highlights the critical role information plays in modern conflicts, where data breaches, misinformation campaigns, and surveillance can significantly alter the geopolitical landscape. As conflicts evolve from conventional warfare to hybrid forms involving cyber operations and psychological tactics, the ability to control, protect, and exploit information is paramount.

Consequently, the value of information in global conflict underscores the need for robust cybersecurity measures and strategic information management to maintain national security and competitive edge in an increasingly interconnected world.

A Brief History

Throughout history, converting individuals into spies through relationships has been a prevalent tactic in espionage. This method leverages personal connections to manipulate and control targets, gradually drawing them into the world of intelligence gathering. One of the earliest recorded instances dates back to biblical times, with the story of Delilah and Samson. Delilah, under the influence of the Philistines, used her intimate relationship with Samson to extract the secret of his strength, leading to his downfall.

In more recent history, during World War II, the Soviet Union perfected the use of “honey traps,” where attractive agents, known as “Romeo spies,” seduced individuals to gather intelligence. The KGB, for example, frequently used this technique to infiltrate Western governments and obtain classified information. These spies would establish romantic or sexual relationships with their targets, exploiting emotional bonds to gain trust and access to sensitive information.

The Cold War further highlighted the effectiveness of manipulating relationships for espionage. The Cambridge Five, a group of British intelligence officers who spied for the Soviet Union, were influenced by ideological alignment and personal connections. Their recruitment involved leveraging existing relationships and exploiting personal vulnerabilities, leading to significant breaches in Western intelligence.

These historical examples underscore the enduring efficacy of relationship-based espionage. By exploiting personal bonds, intelligence agencies can manipulate individuals into betraying their countries or organizations, demonstrating how intimate connections can be weaponized in the complex world of espionage.

Asian Communities Vulnerability

Asians living in the U.S., Canada, and Europe face unique vulnerabilities to scams and spying scam-based operations due to several factors. Cultural and linguistic ties to their countries of origin can be exploited by scammers who pose as authorities or relatives, leveraging familiarity and trust to manipulate their targets.

Additionally, the rise in geopolitical tensions has heightened the scrutiny and pressure on Asian communities, making them potential targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence services. The fear of reprisal against family members in their home countries can also be a significant leverage point. This susceptibility is compounded by the existence of diaspora communities, where maintaining strong connections with their native countries is common.

Such connections can be manipulated to coerce individuals into spying or providing sensitive information under the guise of loyalty to their homeland or out of fear of consequences.

The Mechanics of the Scam

Like most relationship scams it can begin as an online connection or relationship and then develop from there.

Initial Contact and Grooming: The process often begins like many online scams, with cybercriminals contacting potential victims via email, social media, or other digital platforms. These messages are crafted to appear legitimate, often mimicking official communications from reputable companies or government agencies. Once contact is established, the scammers gradually build a rapport with the victim, gaining their trust.

Exploitation of Trust: Once trust is secured, the scammers begin to manipulate the victim into providing information. This can range from seemingly harmless data to more sensitive corporate or institutional information, such as network access. The manipulation can be subtle, with the victim being led to believe that they are assisting in legitimate activities or that they are being recruited for a highly confidential and lucrative role, or their romantic partner is just curious about their work.

Conversion into Informants: Over time, the victim will be convinced to actively gather and relay information from within their organization. This can include internal emails, strategic documents, financial records, and even access credentials. The victim, now unwittingly a spy, might be incentivized with financial rewards, threats, or promises of future benefits.

Not Really Doing Any Harm

Often, victims of espionage scams do not realize the significance of the information they are providing or the potential harm it can cause.

Many individuals believe that the details they share are innocuous or mundane, failing to see how seemingly trivial information can be pieced together to form a comprehensive and damaging picture. This misunderstanding is frequently exploited by scammers and foreign intelligence operatives who downplay the value of the information they seek, framing requests as harmless or routine, just curiosity.

Victims are usually misled into thinking that their cooperation poses no risk, particularly when the information requested does not appear to be classified or sensitive at first glance. This deception can lead to a false sense of security, whereby the victims feel they are not contributing to any malicious efforts, thereby inadvertently aiding espionage activities without a full appreciation of the consequences. This underscores the need for increased awareness and education on the tactics used in espionage and the potential implications of sharing even seemingly benign information.

The Impact on Businesses and Institutions

These scam-based approaches are not all oriented to obtaining sensitive information for espionage purposes, they also serve to obtain the necessary information to engage in a Business Email Compromise (BEC) scam or other cyberattack.

Data Breaches and Financial Loss: The immediate impact of such espionage is often the loss of sensitive data. This can result in financial losses, competitive disadvantages, and significant reputational damage. The stolen information can be used for a variety of malicious purposes, including intellectual property theft, financial fraud, and strategic disruption.

Compromised Security: The infiltration of a business or institution by an insider acting under the influence of scammers can severely compromise its security. This can lead to further breaches as the scammers may use the insider’s credentials to access even more sensitive areas of the organization.

Long-Term Trust Issues: Discovering that an employee has been unwittingly working with cybercriminals can lead to long-term legal issues within the organization, who will either report them to law enforcement and intelligence agencies or may also litigate against the employee.. With the discovery of a spy within the organization, the overall morale will suffer as a result of the breach of trust.

Recognizing and Mitigating the Threat

Every organization needs to recognize that they possess information valuable to someone and that tactics such as espionage and social engineering can be employed against them. Whether it’s trade secrets, strategic plans, or customer personal data, each piece of information has potential value in the hands of competitors, hackers, or foreign entities.

Understanding this is vital for implementing effective security measures and reinforcing a culture of vigilance within the organization. Awareness and education about these threats can help employees recognize suspicious activities and prevent inadvertent information leaks. By acknowledging the value of their information and the methods used to extract it, organizations can better protect themselves against these sophisticated tactics.

Awareness and Training: One of the most effective ways to combat this form of cyber espionage is through comprehensive employee awareness and training programs. Employees should be educated on the tactics used by scammers and how to recognize suspicious communications. Regular training sessions and updates on the latest threats can help keep this issue at the forefront of employees’ minds.

Robust Cybersecurity Measures: Implementing robust cybersecurity measures is crucial. This includes the use of advanced threat detection systems, regular security audits, and strict access controls. Ensuring that only authorized personnel have access to sensitive information can help limit the potential damage from an insider threat.

Monitoring and Reporting Mechanisms: Establishing clear monitoring and reporting mechanisms can also help. Employees should know how to report suspicious activities or communications, and there should be a straightforward process for investigating these reports. Encouraging a culture of openness and vigilance can significantly reduce the risk of insider threats.

Psychological Support: In some cases, victims of such scams may need psychological support. Understanding that they have been manipulated and exploited can be a difficult realization. Providing support can help them cope with the aftermath and reduce the likelihood of similar incidents in the future.

Summary

The conversion of scam victims into corporate spies by Chinese or other Nation-State cybercriminals represents a significant and evolving threat. By understanding how these scams operate and implementing comprehensive strategies to mitigate the risks, businesses, and institutions can better protect themselves from this insidious form of cyber espionage. Staying vigilant, educating employees, and maintaining robust cybersecurity measures are key steps in safeguarding against these sophisticated threats.

Important Information for New Scam Victims

If you are looking for local trauma counselors please visit counseling.AgainstScams.org or join SCARS for our counseling/therapy benefit: membership.AgainstScams.org

If you need to speak with someone now, you can dial 988 or find phone numbers for crisis hotlines all around the world here: www.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines

Statement About Victim Blaming

Some of our articles discuss various aspects of victims. This is both about better understanding victims (the science of victimology) and their behaviors and psychology. This helps us to educate victims/survivors about why these crimes happened and to not blame themselves, better develop recovery programs, and to help victims avoid scams in the future. At times this may sound like blaming the victim, but it does not blame scam victims, we are simply explaining the hows and whys of the experience victims have.

These articles, about the Psychology of Scams or Victim Psychology – meaning that all humans have psychological or cognitive characteristics in common that can either be exploited or work against us – help us all to understand the unique challenges victims face before, during, and after scams, fraud, or cybercrimes. These sometimes talk about some of the vulnerabilities the scammers exploit. Victims rarely have control of them or are even aware of them, until something like a scam happens and then they can learn how their mind works and how to overcome these mechanisms.

Articles like these help victims and others understand these processes and how to help prevent them from being exploited again or to help them recover more easily by understanding their post-scam behaviors. Learn more about the Psychology of Scams at www.ScamPsychology.org

SCARS Resources:

Psychology Disclaimer:

All articles about psychology and the human brain on this website are for information & education only

The information provided in this and other SCARS articles are intended for educational and self-help purposes only and should not be construed as a substitute for professional therapy or counseling.

Note about Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices have the potential to create psychological distress for some individuals. Please consult a mental health professional or experienced meditation instructor for guidance should you encounter difficulties.

While any self-help techniques outlined herein may be beneficial for scam victims seeking to recover from their experience and move towards recovery, it is important to consult with a qualified mental health professional before initiating any course of action. Each individual’s experience and needs are unique, and what works for one person may not be suitable for another.

Additionally, any approach may not be appropriate for individuals with certain pre-existing mental health conditions or trauma histories. It is advisable to seek guidance from a licensed therapist or counselor who can provide personalized support, guidance, and treatment tailored to your specific needs.

If you are experiencing significant distress or emotional difficulties related to a scam or other traumatic event, please consult your doctor or mental health provider for appropriate care and support.

If you are in crisis, feeling desperate, or in despair please call 988 or your local crisis hotline.

PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.

Opinions

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc. The author is solely responsible for the content of their work. SCARS is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) section 230 from liability.

Disclaimer:

SCARS IS A DIGITAL PUBLISHER AND DOES NOT OFFER HEALTH OR MEDICAL ADVICE, LEGAL ADVICE, FINANCIAL ADVICE, OR SERVICES THAT SCARS IS NOT LICENSED OR REGISTERED TO PERFORM.

IF YOU’RE FACING A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, CALL YOUR LOCAL EMERGENCY SERVICES IMMEDIATELY, OR VISIT THE NEAREST EMERGENCY ROOM OR URGENT CARE CENTER. YOU SHOULD CONSULT YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER BEFORE FOLLOWING ANY MEDICALLY RELATED INFORMATION PRESENTED ON OUR PAGES.

ALWAYS CONSULT A LICENSED ATTORNEY FOR ANY ADVICE REGARDING LEGAL MATTERS.

A LICENSED FINANCIAL OR TAX PROFESSIONAL SHOULD BE CONSULTED BEFORE ACTING ON ANY INFORMATION RELATING TO YOUR PERSONAL FINANCES OR TAX-RELATED ISSUES AND INFORMATION.

SCARS IS NOT A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR – WE DO NOT PROVIDE INVESTIGATIVE SERVICES FOR INDIVIDUALS OR BUSINESSES. ANY INVESTIGATIONS THAT SCARS MAY PERFORM IS NOT A SERVICE PROVIDED TO THIRD-PARTIES. INFORMATION REPORTED TO SCARS MAY BE FORWARDED TO LAW ENFORCEMENT AS SCARS SEE FIT AND APPROPRIATE.

This content and other material contained on the website, apps, newsletter, and products (“Content”), is general in nature and for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical, legal, or financial advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for licensed or regulated professional advice. Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider, lawyer, financial, or tax professional with any questions you may have regarding the educational information contained herein. SCARS makes no guarantees about the efficacy of information described on or in SCARS’ Content. The information contained is subject to change and is not intended to cover all possible situations or effects. SCARS does not recommend or endorse any specific professional or care provider, product, service, or other information that may be mentioned in SCARS’ websites, apps, and Content unless explicitly identified as such.

The disclaimers herein are provided on this page for ease of reference. These disclaimers supplement and are a part of SCARS’ website’s Terms of Use

Legal Notices: 

All original content is Copyright © 1991 – 2023 Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc. (Registered D.B.A SCARS) All Rights Reserved Worldwide & Webwide. Third-party copyrights acknowledge.

U.S. State of Florida Registration Nonprofit (Not for Profit) #N20000011978 [SCARS DBA Registered #G20000137918] – Learn more at www.AgainstScams.org

SCARS, SCARS|INTERNATIONAL, SCARS, SCARS|SUPPORT, SCARS, RSN, Romance Scams Now, SCARS|INTERNATION, SCARS|WORLDWIDE, SCARS|GLOBAL, SCARS, Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams, Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams, SCARS|ANYSCAM, Project Anyscam, Anyscam, SCARS|GOFCH, GOFCH, SCARS|CHINA, SCARS|CDN, SCARS|UK, SCARS|LATINOAMERICA, SCARS|MEMBER, SCARS|VOLUNTEER, SCARS Cybercriminal Data Network, Cobalt Alert, Scam Victims Support Group, SCARS ANGELS, SCARS RANGERS, SCARS MARSHALLS, SCARS PARTNERS, are all trademarks of Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc., All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Contact the legal department for the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Incorporated by email at legal@AgainstScams.org