These college students figured out a way to score free food from KFC — they ended up in jail

Society & Culture

A Chinese student used a technical glitch to score free food from KFC and taught his friends how to do it. Was this a crime, or just a case of ordinary people trying to make the most out of the capitalist hellscape that we live in being punished by a multibillion dollar corporation?

Five college students have been jailed for taking advantage of a glitch in the Chinese KFC’s system that allowed them to get meals for free and resell them for profit.

In a ruling (in Chinese) handed down earlier this month, a court in Shanghai decided the students had committed fraud by fleecing the fast-food conglomerate out of more than 200,000 yuan ($30,976) worth of food. They were given sentences of a year and three months and two and a half years behind bars.

Leading the loophole-exploiting ring was a university student surnamed Xu, who first discovered the flaw while ordering food on KFC’s mobile app in 2018. By bouncing back and forth between the app and KFC’s food-delivery program on WeChat, Xu found out that he had the power to generate an unlimited stream of coupons which could be redeemed for free meals.

Xu created a business by reselling the coupons online at low prices, according to The Paper (in Chinese). He later shared his secret with four schoolmates. Before KFC discovered their manipulation of the coupon system and eliminated the loophole, Xu — in a span of six months — had managed to cause a loss of 58,000 yuan ($8,990) to Yum China Holdings, the owner of the KFC and Pizza Hut restaurant chains in China, according to the court’s decision. The other four students each cost the company between 8,900 yuan ($1,378) and 47,000 yuan ($7,279).

In explaining its verdict, the court said that because the group utilized a mismatch of transaction data between different platforms, rather than exploiting a technical glitch within one system, Xu and his friends had “deliberately engaged in false transactions and illegally profited from them,” which it considered to be “a crime of fraud.”

The court also noted that it found Xu guilty of both committing fraud involving large sums and teaching others his illegal method, which together could have sent him to prison for up to 15 years. But because Xu turned himself in and fully compensated KFC for the damage he caused, he ended up getting a sentence of two and a half years in prison.

However, Xu’s scheme was seen in a completely different light by a lot of people on the Chinese internet. Many wondered why KFC, a multinational corporation valued at $5.1 billion as of 2020, couldn’t just own up to its technical mistake, endure the loss, and move on. Instead, it chose to “ruin the lives of several young adults,” some critics said (in Chinese). Much of the online wrath was also directed at the court, with some internet users arguing that the sentences were too harsh for what they saw as a minor offense.

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