China’s Retirement Home Industry is Plagued by Ponzi Schemes

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“It may have been a scam from the beginning,” she added.

Seniors in rural areas could be especially vulnerable. They often live alone because their children have moved to big cities for jobs. About 16 million elderly people had been left behind in rural areas, according to a 2016 survey by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Many older adults “don’t have the financial resources to pay for long-term care services and they don’t have children who can provide the care for them, so they are basically stuck,” said Bei Wu, a professor of public health at New York University who has studied China’s elderly for three decades.

The police in the city of Yiyang are investigating Heng Fuhai, the company that Ms. Yang invested in, and Yiyang Nanuo Senior Apartments, the company that took money from Cao Yinglin, the retired handyman who threw himself into the river last month. The authorities have asked those who invested to provide more information and have said they will try to minimize the losses of investors. But Ms. Yang is doubtful.

Heng Fuhai and Nanuo Senior Apartments did not respond to requests for comment. The telephone number for Nanuo has been disconnected. An employee at Heng Fuhai hung up the phone.

Ms. Yang said she had missed warning signs. The saleswoman, she said, pushed her to invest soon after her husband could no longer take care of himself. Ms. Yang resisted, but the saleswoman wouldn’t give up. The saleswoman phoned her, followed her home and visited her husband in the hospital. The saleswoman even cleaned Ms. Yang’s house, she said.

“She acted like a daughter, a daughter I gave birth to,” Ms. Yang said. “She was even more affectionate toward me than my children. It felt like that it would be too embarrassing to say no.”

Now Ms. Yang is just grateful for the small monthly retirement money she receives. If not, “then I would have to do what old Mr. Cao did,” she said. “It just takes one jump.”

Coral Yang contributed research.

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