Exposed: Chinese smartphone farms that run thousands of barebones mobes to do crime

Operators pack twenty phones into a chassis – then rack 'em and stack 'em ready to do evil

Chinese upstarts are selling smartphone motherboards – and kit to run and manage them at scale – to operators of outfits that use them to commit various scams and crimes, according to an undercover investigation by state television broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) revealed late last week.

The report shows what appear to be chassis filled with 20 smartphone motherboards each, wired to a monitor that displays the screens of all 20 units. Also shown is a datacenter of sorts full of racks, each populated with several of the chassis and as many as 1,000 smartphones all hard at work.

The phones are each signed in to a unique account, and operators take care to change their IP addresses often – to evade detection by online platforms or regulatory authorities, alleged CCTV.

That's because the phones are used for purposes such as posting fake comments or likes – some with SEO-boosting links – or placing fake orders on e-commerce sites.

Operators reportedly charge between RMB3,000 ($417) and RMB6,000 ($834) for a 20-smartphone system.

One manager of a facility that rents the barebones smartphones and accompanying services reportedly told CCTV that he does not know the identity of his clients – don't ask, don't tell is his preferred mode of business.

The broadcaster noted that this sort of phone farming is clearly illegal – it violates Article 53 of China's telecommunications regulations, which stipulates that telecom, radio and networking equipment that is connected to the public telecommunications network must comply with national standards and obtain a network access license.

Chinese local media outlet Jiemian News reported that major e-commerce platforms like Taobao and Poinduoduo have blocked search terms that would help buyers find phone farms, or the builders of the kit they run.

However, the miscreants can be found in other ways. Some even offer management software that allows screen mirroring, remote access to devices, and file transfers.

Others offer cloudy smartphones – to reduce dependence on hardware.

Some vendors are keen to present legitimate uses for their set-ups. One describes its group control technology as a game development and testing tool, as it can simulate multiple users.

Nonetheless, Jiemian News reported that among the businesses engaged in mobile phone motherboard-related business, over 23 percent have run into legal trouble – but fewer than three percent have faced administrative penalties. ®

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