Blood money: Chinese phone scammers target HIV/Aids carriers in data leak
Patients blame health authorities for scandal, fearing situation could escalate into blackmail
Chinese HIV/Aids patients have lashed out at the country’s disease control and prevention authority, blaming it for a massive personal data leak behind a nationwide telephone scam.
The scandal has ignited widespread public concern, with health authorities saying only that the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had reported the matter to police.
One Shanghai patient said he feared the scam would escalate to blackmail.
Since Friday, scammers claiming to be government officials had phoned at least 275 HIV/Aids patients in 30 mainland provinces, telling them that the authorities would give them thousands of yuan in subsidies in return for payment of “commissions” to the authorities, the Beijing News reported yesterday.
The commissions ranged from 600 yuan (HK$695) to 2,000 yuan, the scammers said.
The patients said the scammers had extensive knowledge of their personal details, including their real name, identity card number, phone number, permanent residency, the hospital they visited and the date they were confirmed as HIV positive.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission said “criminal violators of the law have stolen the personal information of HIV/Aids carriers and conducted phone scams”.
“The CDC has already reported the matter to the public security authorities,” the commission said. “The authority also has informed local CDC departments to be wary of similar scams and to remind patients in their areas to be on alert.”
According to the mainland’s decade-old HIV/Aids Treatment and Prevention Regulations, the personal information of HIV/Aids patients is protected by law.
Organisations and individuals are prohibited from releasing information about patients without their consent.
The regulation covers details such as the names of patients and their relatives, their home address, employers, images, medical history and other information that could be used to identify people with the virus.
On the mainland, local branches of the CDC are responsible for determining a person’s HIV status and collating the personal information.
Using the alias Xiao Qiang, an HIV-positive man in Shanghai, said many patients resisted giving their personal details to health authorities.
“They are treating a disease, not treating people. So why do they need our personal information?” he said.
“But if they don’t register with the CDC, people carrying the virus won’t get the anti-virus medication for free.
“The bombardment of patients through a privacy breach on such a large scale has made us all worried about other troubles like blackmail or threats,” he said.
He said an HIV-positive man in Beijing told him that colleagues at his company’s human resources department received a call yesterday afternoon asking if the patient worked there.
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The caller said he was an employee at the HIV/Aids Information Centre at Ditan Hospital in Beijing.
“Things are getting worse and we think it’s horrific,” Xiao Qiang said.
Another HIV-positive man who identified himself as Frank said no matter how the data leak had occurred, the national CDC had to take responsibility for it.
“It’s a serious dereliction of duty,” he said.
“The national CDC just made a simple response by saying it had reported the matter to police. There is no press conference explaining the incident to the public. We are disappointed.”
The World Health Organisation and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids said they were aware of reports of the suspected leak of confidential information about people living with HIV on the mainland.
The two groups said they were ready to provide any support necessary to government health authorities and civil society groups.