BEIJING — "Goodbye," Ying told her third husband.
"Oh," he responded indifferently.
Through their legal, but dishonnest, marriage, Ying earned 40,000 yuan ($6,000). Her "husband" was allowed to buy an apartment in Beijing, which in turn, nets him about one million yuan ($150,000) a year.
Ying and her real husband Wang are a couple who offers "services' such as fake marriages, to help migrant workers obtain a "hukou" to buy properties in Beijing. During the last five years, the couple has evolved from just offering marriages of convenience to strangers to becoming matchmakers. Their services are an obscure footnote in China"s real estate development boom.
In China, it's difficult for migrant workers in big cities to obtain a local hukou, a local household registration, which enables them to the rights of a citizen such as buying property or sending children to school. People are willing to pay up to 200,000 yuan ($30,000) for such a hukou. Earlier this year, numerous metropolises that faced an overheated property market, including Beijing and Shanghai, introduced a new policy that made it even more difficult for migrant workers, as well as couples who already own a house, to buy property. In order to bypass the regulation, migrants are increasingly paying for fake marriages arranged by dealers.
If authorities start to take notice of him, he might have trouble applying to have a second child or schooling his child.
Ying and Wang's foray into the business started when Wang's father depleted the family's resources by being gravely ill. At the time, Ying was obliged to abort her second pregnancy due to the one-child policy in effect at the time. After the procedure, Ying couldn't afford to drink black chicken soup, which is believed to be particularly nourishing for women. The couple's money woes got a respite when a fake marriage dealer offered Wang 50,000 yuan ($7,500) for getting married to a stranger.
After Ying agreed to the deal, Wang divorced her and handed the documents over to the dealer — the household registration card hukou, identity card, premarital health exams certificate and photos.
"The 50,000 yuan were not gained in a honorable way. But it is easier than hard work," says Wang.
Fake marriage market
The fake marriage market is composed of marriage service providers, property buyers and dealers. Most providers are farmers and homosexuals. The latter usually go through private transactions rather than dealing through agents.
Both parties involve recognize that the sham marriage doesn't violate any law and that they aren't committed to a lifelong relationship. They sign a few documents before proceeding to the Civil Affairs Bureau to obtain a marriage certificate: an agreement about the ownership of assets like land, cars, housing and cash before and after marriage, as well as a divorce settlement.
In this profession, a person's price is inversely proportional to the number of marriages and divorces he or she has had. The more times they are married and divorced, the less their commission. "A person getting married not for the first time definitely costs less than a person marrying for the first time," says a fake marriage broker.
Having been married and divorced four times, Wang's value in the sham marriage market is declining rapidly. As one industry insider told him, if authorities start to take notice of him, he might have trouble applying to have a second child or schooling his child.
Wang and his wife Ying also feel compelled to move according to the demands of the real estate market.
"My clients are mostly migrants with ordinary income. They all have a story of hardship and in principle no longer aspire to love. But they want to buy a piece of something they own. Now that they can't afford to buy in Beijing, they start to eye the capital's suburban towns," says Wang.
So Wang and Ying have started to follow buyers to several satellite towns in Hebei province. "Wherever the real estate market is heated that's where the fake marriage is," Wang says.
Most demands come from middle-low-income earners who do not wish to miss the opportunity of owning some assets.
While pretending to be a property buyer, this reporter was also offered fake marriages by several real estate brokers.
It's not just for houses that people fake marriages. Others sign up for it in order to buy a car. Ever since Beijing authorities came up with a lottery system for car purchases in 2010 in the hope of curbing the capital's notorious traffic jams, the regulation has hit migrant workers hard since it's difficult for them to prove that they have continuously lived and paid taxes in the capital for more than five years. Most marriage subjects are people who are happy with their spouses and have a Beijing hukou but are working in other cities.
"Most demands come from middle-low-income earners who do not wish to miss the opportunity of owning some assets," one of these agents told me. According to him, currently the demand is bigger than the supply. And it's particularly difficult to find female candidates. This means that they cost about 10,000 yuan ($1,500) more than men.
I witnessed one of these women — who happened to be particularly good-looking — in an agency.
"Were it me, I'd be most happy to marry her. But then I would not want to get divorced. It is a lot harder to find a wife than a house," says a dealer.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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