The Chinese trait that scammers bank on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am

'I'm in trouble, dad. Come save me ... They asked for HK$200,000 ...'

It's a typical story put forward by telephone scammers who have been conning tens of millions of dollars a year out of gullible elderly parents. And the door to their fortune shows no sign of shutting. What is the key they are holding, if any?

Chief Inspector David Williams, leader of a police squad that specialises in phone scams - also prevalent in Taiwan and the mainland - said the key had a lot to do with Confucian values, which emphasise bonds between family members.

He said 80 per cent of the victims in the city were over 50, and 90 per cent were called at home, usually between 9am and 5pm when they were alone.

Some lose their life savings after being duped into believing their children or relatives are in trouble and need money. In one case last year a 68-year-old woman paid HK$1.28 million to scammers who tricked her out of money 32 times in a week.

Such fraudsters netted HK$29.36 million last year in cases reported to the police, up 19 per cent on 2008.

Their scheme is simple - call an elderly relative with a story and when they swallow it, order them to put the money in a bank account opened by an accomplice.

Williams said panic was a primary factor prompting victims to fall for the scam. Another reason was Chinese culture, which he said was very different from cultures in the West, and the Confucian ideal of family ties.

'If somebody rang my dad [in England] and said your son's kidnapped and needs your money, my dad would say 'Good luck, bye bye!' because he knows it's nonsense,' Williams said.

'But in Chinese culture, the family bond is very close, and so no matter how strange it sounds, the first thing in the victim's mind is the safety of their relatives; even if they know it's a scam and have even seen it on TV, in their mind is the safety of their boys.'

Stanislaus Lai Ding-kee, a criminologist at City University, agreed. '[In Chinese culture] once you are born to be children of your parents, you are forever their children. The parents will always try to find ways to help their kids out of trouble,' Lai said.

This was why street scam victims, also mostly elderly, were prone to tricksters who persuaded them to hand over large sums in return for blessings for their family members.

Williams said the criminals' mode of operating had been continually evolving, making it more difficult for police to catch them. In 2003, they were using ordinary phones and collecting money in person but soon realised they were exposing themselves to police ambushes. Then they turned to pre-paid phone cards and had the targets put money into bank accounts.

More recently they have been using internet phone services, making thousands of random calls a day from hubs on the mainland. Targets were told to give money to remittance agents, like underground banks, which transferred the funds to the syndicates' mainland accounts.

Lai said cross-border phone scams in the style of 'your children are in trouble on the mainland' were getting more common because more people were getting jobs on the mainland. 'Parents have no way of knowing what has happened to their children if they have problems on the mainland. And they might do anything they can to save them.'

A quick phone call to the children could expose the scam, but the parents were not given time to think and act; the fraudsters usually managed to get the money within half a day.

In the street, scammers play on their targets' greed, kind-heartedness and superstition. Lai said the nine most common street scams listed on the Hong Kong Police website all worked on these traits.

One of the most common is the spiritual blessing scam. Acting Superintendent Paul Bailey of the commercial crime bureau, which monitors street deceptions, said the swindlers approached strangers and convinced them they could help them or family members to expel evil spirits, avoid bad luck or cure or prevent a disease. The victims were asked to bring money and valuables for a 'cleansing' ritual which the swindlers swapped for valueless items before handing back the containers they were in.

Bailey said reports of street scams began in earnest in 1999 and reached a peak of 811 cases in 2002, followed by a drop in the following years. In the first quarter of this year, 12 cases of street deception were reported.

Phone scams and street scams affect mainly poorly educated, gullible and superstitious people, but smart and educated people are not immune to swindlers.

City University criminal psychologist Tom Yuen Chi-man was targeted by a pretty young woman who said she could lead him on a quick and easy path to get rich by investing in a special type of gold. The assistant professor said the story began some months ago when he agreed to answer a few questions in a roadside survey about his investment history. He had agreed out of kind-heartedness, and had even given the young woman his phone number. The woman, in her 20s, was so persistent in her calls that he could find up to eight missed calls on his telephone if he went out for an hour.

'Once you become a potential target, they will be clingy,' Yuen said. 'She wasn't hard-selling, but presenting lots of data on return rate and fishy investment opportunities around the globe.' He said he was maintaining contact with the woman to study her and see what she would do if pushed to the limit.

A 'once-in-a-blue-moon' court case that created headlines late last year provided insight into how scammers feed on victims' beliefs, Lai said. In that case, a self-proclaimed Taoist master was jailed for almost seven years for duping a 19-year-old model into having sex nine times as part of rituals to boost her career. The model fell pregnant and had an abortion.

'It was really strange to find a young person to be so naive and ignorant in a modern city like Hong Kong, a place saturated with channels to attain common knowledge,' Lai said.

Women seeking a better spiritual life or to bond with others often fell into sex traps laid by men claiming to be powerful religious masters, Lai said; what was different in the teen model's case was that she believed the sex rituals could actually bring her tangible benefits.

Lai said scammers were good at identifying people with beliefs that made them easy targets and who were easily manipulated.