A Chinese national accused of creating fake profiles of women on the dating website PlentyOfFish.com has been charged with federal cyberstalking and identity theft for crimes he allegedly committed on Sept. 11.
The 30-year-old defendant — who is a citizen of China but holds a green card — is Wei Fang Wu, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
Wu allegedly created nine profiles of different women under various names and in various geographical areas. The fake profiles allegedly used information from the accusers. They included photos of Wu online that were taken from the popular photo-sharing website Imgur. The profiles purport to be from women who were actually dating another man.
The charges stem from the case of a 29-year-old woman who complained to authorities in Minnesota in May 2015 that she had been the victim of identity theft, following a series of private messages Wu had sent to her.
The complaint says that over a short period of time Wu had met the woman and, together, began exchanging nude photos. Wu then began spending weeks — sometimes months — at a time in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, even as the woman ended their relationship, according to the criminal complaint.
Wu sent the woman a series of messages, at first pretending to be a man from Ireland but eventually changing to one from China. Wu claimed to be in his late 20s, said that he was a law student and set up an online account so that he could chat with the woman.
“In one message, the defendant claimed that he had only told the woman that he was from Ireland because he wanted to ‘stop her from doing girls the wrong way.’”
In May 2015, the woman found and reported the fake profiles to the police. She provided a warrant affidavit and submitted photos to verify the emails were authentic, according to the complaint.
Wu was arrested in Beijing in January and later extradited to the United States to face these charges. A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Minneapolis, Dennis Gerhardstein, told the Washington Post that the trial has not yet been scheduled.
Through a translator, Wu pleaded not guilty to the cyberstalking charge in a hearing Friday. The complaint against him contained no evidence that his victims had any other knowledge of the fake profiles.
“We refer to it as an illusion of anonymity,” Gerhardstein said, referring to the fact that he used a pseudonym when he was creating the profiles.
The complaint says that Wu confessed to creating the profiles in statements taken while in custody. Wu also admitted to making one fake profile of a U.S. citizen in South Dakota, another of a U.S. citizen in Minnesota and still another of a Chinese citizen from China, according to the complaint.
These identities are then duplicated and used to communicate with at least two other women, both of whom reported to the police that they had been abused by Wu, according to the complaint.
The charges come as the government’s efforts to combat online identity theft and social media manipulation are bearing fruit. Last month, a Russian national was indicted for using fake Twitter accounts to illegally “influence and manipulate” public opinions.
According to the complaint filed against Wu, a researcher for a Washington, D.C.-based think tank told authorities in February about identifying accounts belonging to the Chinese national. When an investigator from the Department of Homeland Security searched Wu’s computers, according to the complaint, they discovered deleted files related to the identities he created.
It is not clear whether Wu faces any other outstanding charges related to online identity theft. The Chinese government has not announced an arrest or extradition request.
Wu was arrested in Beijing after crossing into China last October.
Wu is the first case of its kind and sheds light on the nature of modern identity theft. Following an investigation of 40,000 stolen identities, the FBI discovered that less than 5 percent of them were those of U.S. citizens, the agency said.
Similar cases of identity theft — where a foreign national maliciously accesses information and uses it to access private information or collect credit card numbers — have been found in India, Thailand and Malaysia, according to the FBI.