By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter and CNA Team
In response to accusations that the country is a major source of international fraud, Taiwan’s government has since 2014 amended related laws three times, paving the way for Taiwan nationals found guilty of telecoms fraud at home and overseas to receive heavier penalties.
The most recent revision took place in April 2017 when amendments to the Organized Crime Prevention Act took effect, under which telecommunications fraud is now categorized as organized crime, according to Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) during a February interview with CNA.
As a result, gang leaders convicted of telecoms fraud face 3-10 years in prison and a fine of up to NT$100 million (US$3.41 million), while those involved in such activities are subject to a prison sentence ranging from six months to 10 years and a fine of up to NT$10 million.
The change is aimed at curbing rampant fraud involving the use of telecom technology and communication networks in recent years, with Taiwanese fraud rings operating around the world scamming billions of dollars from Chinese-speaking people, mainly Chinese nationals, through telephone scams over the years.
Indeed, so widespread have the operations of these criminal gangs become that their activities continue to tarnish the nation’s judicial system and give the impression that Taiwan is unwilling or unable to crack down on fraud.
As a result, the misperception has grown in some quarters that Taiwan is “a safe haven for fraudsters.”
One of the main reasons that so many cross-border telecom fraud cases have involved Taiwanese nationals is the country’s relatively lenient treatment of nationals arrested for committing fraud overseas over many years.
Data shows that from 2009-2014, more than 2,105 Taiwanese telecommunication fraud suspects were arrested in Taiwan and China.
Only 462, or 21 percent of the total, were later convicted of a crime by Taiwan’s courts. In addition, those found guilty mostly received jail terms of less than five years, as opposed to 15 years or more in China.
According to Minister Chiu, this difference in outcome is not because Taiwan’s authorities are unwilling to prosecute the alleged scammers.
Chiu told CNA that because the crimes in question were committed overseas and most of the victims were not in Taiwan, it is extremely difficult for local authorities to press charges.
Taiwan’s apparent inability to stop such criminal behavior angers Beijing. In 2016, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused Taiwanese swindlers of stealing more than US$1.5 billion annually from Chinese nationals.
Previously, Taiwanese suspects were deported to Taiwan as part of informal arrangements between crime-fighting agencies in Taiwan, China and countries where the fraudsters operated.
However, over the past few years, China has started to insist that Taiwanese scammers caught abroad be deported to China. While Taipei has condemned such a move as “abduction,” Beijing says it is legally justified, because most of the fraud victims are Chinese nationals.
With the strained cross-strait relations since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) assumed office in May 2016, such deportations of Taiwanese suspects have become increasingly common.
What is perhaps more surprising is that most Taiwanese seem to support Beijing’s hardline.
In a survey conducted in Dec. 2017 by Taiwan-based Chinese-language Apple Daily, nearly 73 percent of respondents said they support sending Taiwanese involved in fraud cases to China for trial.
In response Taiwan representative to Indonesia John Chen (陳忠), who crossed swords with China during a telecommunications fraud case in Kenya in 2016, told CNA that he understands why Taiwanese people hate scammers and might want them to be sent to China and receive harsher penalties.
However, such cases involve Taiwan’s judicial sovereignty which is why the Taiwan government seeks to have its citizens repatriated for trial.
Chiu also noted that although many believe China is winning the cross-strait war in deporting Taiwanese fraud suspects, in fact far more Republic of China (Taiwan) citizens involved in such criminal activities have been deported to Taiwan in recent years.
From April 2016 to March 2018, 484 Taiwanese fraud suspects arrested overseas were repatriated to Taiwan, while 268 were sent to China, according to Ministry of Justice.
The reason for this is that Taiwan’s rule of law is still highly trusted by countries around the globe, according to Chiu.