Officers from the local market regulatory administration confiscate illegal health supplements in Huaibei, Anhui province. (LI XIN / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Chen Jie has gone all-in with the battle against fraudsters who prey on the elderly by selling dubious health supplements with exaggerated claims of medical benefits.
The China Food and Drug Administration said the government investigated 12,000 cases of fraud or misleading advertising last year, confiscating illegal products and handing out fines totaling 360 million yuan (US$57.3 million)
The 43-year-old quit his job as a wine salesman in June and founded a company in Chengdu, Sichuan province, to help families whose elderly relatives have been trapped in scams.
He posts information about how to recognize health supplement frauds on websites, listens to people's complaints, gathers evidence and reports cases to government agencies.
He does it all for free, because he knows how affected family members feel－his own parents fell victim to such frauds.
Numerous cases have been reported over the years around China, where 16.7 percent of the population is older than 60, and the problem prompted authorities to launch a nationwide crackdown on health supplement frauds in July.
The China Food and Drug Administration, now incorporated into the new State Market Regulatory Administration, said on March 15 that the government investigated 12,000 cases of fraud or misleading advertising last year, confiscating illegal products and handing out fines totaling 360 million yuan (US$57.3 million).
The case of Chen's parents is just one of many.
His father, once a soldier, joined a "veterans' club" in 2008. At first, he was invited to lectures on current affairs at the club, given by "military experts", which gave him a sense of belonging. But then, Chen said, his father started bringing home expensive health supplements.
Chen checked the products and found they either lacked an approved serial number or had fabricated or expired ones, but his father did not listen to him.
Meanwhile, his 70-year-old mother spent 800,000 yuan on various fraudulent "investments" and ineffective health supplements in just six years. She did not tell her son until she suffered a stroke and became immobile in 2016.
To make things worse, Chen's father insisted she take the cure-all he bought from his club, and took her to see the "experts" for treatment instead of taking her to hospital for further rehabilitation.
After Chen learned how his mother had fallen victim to the fraudsters, he was shocked. They provided her with free physical examinations and helped her carry things she bought at markets.
"They even came to her home to help with cleaning and cooking, and became my mother's 'sons' and 'daughters' to win her trust," he said. "They're so sophisticated that simply telling my parents to be careful didn't help. Old people are easily brainwashed by the people selling health products."
Despite numerous attempts, he could not shake his father's belief in the dubious health products or stop him from going to the club.
Frustrated, he decided to try his best to help others. In December, he opened an account named "Umbrella Utopia" on WeChat, providing advice on how to protect the rights of the elderly when they are duped by dubious health products.
It is a widespread problem.
In June, the daughter of an 85-year-old retired professor in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, called police to stop her father from buying a herbal mix claimed to be a special ancient prescription that can heal heart problems.
She told the local newspaper, Huashang Daily, that there was no manufacturer's name or serial numbers on the packaging, and that her father had spent more than 100,000 yuan on such "health products" since 2009 and refused to listen to her warnings.
The retired professor in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, sorts packages of health supplements, on which he has spent more than 100,000 yuan since 2009. (XUE WANG/FOR CHINA DAILY)
In November 2016, a 74-year-old woman died during a health lecture after spending 320,000 yuan in three years on various health products and refusing to go to hospital when she became ill, China Central Television reported.
Posts about how to dissuade parents from buying dubious health products are all over the internet. On Zhihu, a popular Chinese Q&A website, a post along those lines has been viewed more than 1.5 million times and has generated more than 300 answers.
Zhang Xin, an associate professor of psychology at Peking University, said in one reply that the elderly are prone to being duped because their source memory, which helps people recall the source of information and judge whether it is reliable, is declining. So when the elderly are told repetitively some products are good, the idea will be inked into their minds with a high degree of certainty.
For some elderly people, going to health clubs and buying health supplements has become part of their daily routines.
In Shanghai, small health clubs can be found in most old neighborhoods, where many senior citizens live.
In November, a Shanghai Consumer Council report on the consumption of health supplements by the elderly said 13.8 percent of elderly people spent more than 10,000 yuan a year on such products. About 90 percent of the 1,000 elderly people who took part in the survey said there are stores selling health supplements in their neighborhoods.
The council also received 375 complaints about frauds totaling more than 3 million yuan last year.
Cui Lijuan, a psychologist at China East Normal University who focuses on the elderly, said the phenomenon is a result of elderly people's growing concerns over their health and their desire to stop aging.
"The anxiety grows as one's health declines," Cui said. "Since many health supplements claim to be high-tech and effective in improving one's health, they become elderly people's natural resort. Although everyone knows aging cannot be stopped, when emotion meets reason, the former wins."
'Sound like an expert'
Around the corner of a farmers' market in Shanghai's Changning district stand two small health clubs. Every morning, from 7 to 11, the small rooms are filled with elderly people listening to health lectures mixed with the implicit promotion of health supplements.
Their glass doors are all frosted. The 28-year-old manager of one club, who has been in the industry for six years, said only people older than 50 were allowed to enter.
He said its products include a liquid tonic that supplies the body with various minerals and a krill oil that strengthens immunity.
"They are all legal products," he said, although he refused to show them. "Around 15,000 health supplements have been approved by the China Food and Drug Administration, and one cannot paint them all with the same brush."
The herbs he bought online do not have a manufacturer's name or serial numbers. (XUE WANG / FOR CHINA DAILY)
One elderly woman said she had been invited to the health lectures twice. Though she had not bought any products, she was happy to receive free gift cards that could be redeemed for daily groceries such as cooking oil, soy sauce and rice at the health club.
Offering freebies is just one of the marketing strategies used by health supplement salespeople to persuade the elderly to buy their products.
In a 2016 report by Shanghai Television, a reporter went undercover to work as a salesperson at a popular health products company and discovered the company's sales training notes, which read: "Talk one-on-one with the elderly; talk about illness, and let them pay attention to it; introduce the products that help lessen the illness; give them promotions; sound like an expert; make home visits; move them and surprise them."
Besides daily lectures, many of the health product sales companies also organize big events in hotels or free sightseeing trips to attract seniors.
In November, Hao Ruxiang, deputy director of the industry and commerce administration in Shuozhou, Shanxi province, led a joint raid on an illegal health supplement sales event in the city.
The grey-haired Hao, 54, said he was approached by a salesperson on his way back from work, asking him to join a four-day health lecture in a local hotel.
"They told me I could get 10 eggs for free if I went," Hao told CCTV. "I knew there was something behind it at once. I have dealt with so many similar cases."
The next day, Hao went undercover to the lecture, and saw some 500 elderly people in the venue, listening to a lecturer who claimed to be a graduate from Beijing Medical University and who bragged about the therapeutic effect of a product in tackling hypertension and high levels of blood sugar. Hao secretly took videos to avoid being discovered by security guards who stopped people from using smartphones.
After having collected enough evidence of false and exaggerated advertising, Hao led a team of 80 officers from his office, the police, and the local food and drug administration to detain the sales group at the hotel when they started selling their products on the last day of the event.
When confronted by Hao, the lecturer confessed that his degree was fake and that he had learned all his health theories from the internet. The organizer was given five days of administrative detention－an extrajudicial punishment－and the money taken was returned to the elderly people.
Longing for attention
Similar raids have been taking places across the country since July, when the State Council issued a plan for tightening supervision of the health supplement industry and cracking down on fraud.
The Beijing Municipal Industry and Commerce Administration investigated nearly 1,000 cases involving false and exaggerated advertising of health supplements in the final quarter of last year, confiscating illegal products and handing out fines totaling 3.8 million yuan.
Despite stricter supervision, an official at the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration said the problem cannot be fixed by the authorities alone.
"It's a social problem that has existed for years," the official said. "The lack of care for the elderly from their sons and daughters is the other side of the coin."
About 118 million people older than 60 will be living on their own in China by 2020, according to the State Council's 13th Five-Year Plan on Development of China's Undertakings for the Aged, issued last year.
Without a companion at home, many elderly go to health clubs to make friends and seek a sense of belonging.
In an inspection of small health clubs in November conducted by deputies to the Shanghai People's Congress, the city's top legislature, many elderly customers said they went there to chat with other senior citizens and felt well treated by the employees.
"The life of the elderly is usually monotonous at home, and they long for attention and care," said deputy Zhu Ru'an. "Some elderly people know that the employees are looking to make money, but they're still willing to pay."
Liu Bo, a consumer behavior researcher affiliated with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who has conducted 20 focus groups with elderly people on their consumption of health products, found that elderly people who seldom communicate with their children are prone to develop an obsession with buying health products.
But "it is impossible for children to look after their parents all the time", Chen said. "Young or old, everyone has his own life, his own track."
In recent months, Chen has devoted his time to listening to dozens of fraud cases, helping to gather evidence and reporting it to local authorities. But he said he has seen more threats than substantial progress.
"Sometimes, I feel downhearted. I have tried so hard, but nothing gets changed," he said. "But I won't give it up. If I keep trying, there's still hope to win the battle.