Livestreaming fraud, forced app downloads, intrusive ads, and privacy violations were among the malicious online practices exposed during this year’s “3.15 Gala” national TV broadcast.

Unlike previous March 15 shows, yesterday’s Consumers Rights Day celebration didn’t single out Apple, Alibaba, Baidu, or any other high-profile companies or brands for reprimands. The offenders this year were little-known small fry. 

This gala’s subdued tone reflects Beijing’s desire to stimulate consumer spending and economic growth, even as the country struggles with a rising wave of COVID-19 outbreaks and geopolitical pressures. 

China’s 2021 GDP growth took a notable hit in the latter half of the year. Averaging out at 8.1%, growth tumbled from 18% in the first quarter to 4% in the fourth quarter. In between, regulators began a broad crackdown that eliminated or crippled internet industries, including crypto mining, private education, and online games.   

READ MORE: INSIGHTS | Making sense of China’s big tech crackdown

Undercover in livestreaming e-commerce 

In its 31st annual outing, the two-hour program spotlighted some obscure companies engaging in a dark side of e-commerce livestreaming, a sector that’s under intensified scrutiny by the state.

One segment showed how undercover CCTV reporters discovered a Guangdong livestreamer’s false claims of owning jade and emerald factories with the aim of grossly inflating prices and selling counterfeit jewelry and Buddha images. The Guangdong agency, Yongdexiang, was shown selling jade Buddha images for RMB 198 ($31) while telling customers the items had been purchased for double that amount. In fact, Yongdexiang had bought them for RMB 88 each. Livestreamers’ selling price could sometimes be as high as five to ten times their original purchase price.

A livestreaming agency in Yunnan province called Shilipai set up a dramatic price bargaining scene between livestreamers and fake jade ornament manufacturers. The purpose was to convince viewers they were being offered the best deal. Other scenes featured artificial backdrops in the livestream that resembled a Myanmar gemstone showroom. Customers thought they were buying jade directly from the Southeast Asian country famed for its high-quality jade. In fact, the livestreams were being staged from studios in office buildings in Kunming.

Smartwatch and smartphone snoops

The gala also showed companies grossly misusing people’s personal information. A Zhengzhou-based company called Lvqian was exposed for building a business around stealing users’ phone numbers and selling them to call centers. The company was able to steal the phone numbers by getting a device’s media access control address, a common network address also known as the MAC number. MAC numbers’ unique identifications are assigned to devices for internet access. 

Some smartwatches made for kids were also revealed to have little privacy protection because they use outdated Android operating systems (OS). As a result, they enable hackers to collect detailed user information without permission. Without timely security patches, an outdated OS can even enable eavesdroppers to surveil users. Devices with an outdated Android OS are common in China since Google services were blocked in China in 2010.  

Malware and Wi-Fi trickery

A few software companies that trick users into downloading malicious software to mobile and desktop devices were also exposed in the TV consumers gala. Malware that displays low-quality ads in forced pop-ups may be a mere annoyance, but some types can steal users’ privacy information or trick users into downloading even more harmful programs. This year’s “3.15 Gala” finally shone light on abuses consumers have been complaining about for the better part of a decade. 

An app called “Free Wi-Fi Unlocker” tricks users looking for ways to access password-protected Wi-Fi systems. Once they download the app, it forcibly installs ads on their devices. Baizhu, a small software company founded in 2012, was exposed for building the so-called speed downloader options on various sites and app stores, tricking people into downloading malicious apps and intrusive ads. 

After the TV exposé, Free Wi-Fi Unlocker is now inaccessible across all app stores. Baizhu emptied its social accounts after the gala and local authorities are reportedly looking into the company. 

Following Consumers Day, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a March 16 statement that the agency will finally start thorough investigations of companies involved in leaking personal information or forcing malicious software onto users’ devices, citing the Personal Information Protection Law, Cybersecurity Law, Telecommunication Regulations, among other regulations. 

Emma Lee

Emma Lee is Shanghai-based tech writer, covering startups and tech happenings in China and Asia in general. We are looking for stories related to tech and China. Reach her at lixin@technode.com.

Ward Zhou

Ward Zhou is a tech reporter based in Shanghai. He covers stories about industry of digital content, hardware, and anything geek. Reach him at ward.zhou[a]technode.com.

Qin Chen

Qin is a News Editor at TechNode. Previously, she was a reporter at Inkstone, a China-focused news site owned by the South China Morning Post. Before that, she worked in the United States for five years....