Making a windfall from earthquake mobile phone credits


Following the earthquake in Sichuan on 12 May, China’s major mobile phone service providers, China Mobile and China Unicom, set up special bonus plans for the affected areas.

China Mobile automatically added 100 yuan to the account of anyone on the Shenzhou plan in Chengdu, Mianyang, Deyang, Guangyuan, and Aba whose balance dropped below 50 yuan between 12 and 31 May. China Unicom users in those regions had 50 yuan added to their accounts when their balance dropped below 50 yuan.

Although the purpose of the bonuses was to insure that people affected by the quake would not have to worry about their accounts running out of money, SIM card vendors in other parts of the country quickly realized that there was money to be made. Cards that had an initial balance of 50 yuan could be taken to Sichuan, where they’d instantly be worth an additional 100 yuan after one short phone call.

Beijing Youth Daily reports that some phone card wholesalers made around 200,000 yuan overnight by buying up stacks of SIM cards and flying out to Chengdu. The paper quotes a China Mobile employee:

We’d realized that this special incentive had a certain amount of risk, but we never thought that so many people would try to make money off a national disaster! We’re outraged!

The employee did not reveal how much had been charged to the company’s Shenzhou plan in Sichuan, but said that the increase was astonishing.

The Beijing News notes that the opportunists were taking a risk, too: once activated, the phone cards must be sold within three months or China Mobile will reclaim them, leaving the vendors out their initial investment.

Both China Mobile and China Unicom told the newspapers that they would take steps to combat profiteering, most likely by adjusting the balance one the phone card exits Sichuan. But according to Beijing Youth Daily‘s contact, the complexity of such a system means that there’s no fixed schedule for implementing it.

Meanwhile, the Central Committee of the Communist Party has set up a supervisory group to keep watch over the money and materials pouring into the quake region. Item #7 of its work plan stipulates that anyone found trying to profit off of the national disaster is to be exposed and punished.

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