Police alarmed at success rate of new phone scam
Ada Lee and Simpson Cheung
Growing numbers of Hongkongers are falling victim to a telephone scam in which conmen use a slick manner and tricks of memory to convince them to part with their money.
Detectives say the scam is hitting even sophisticated victims. They receive calls from mainland numbers from people they are conned into believing are relatives or friends and who convince them to send them money via currency exchange kiosks.
Investigators say the key is that the conmen bide their time before asking for cash.
Hong Kong police say the racket has deceived hundreds of victims out of a total of HK$11 million in recent months. The imposter scam accounts for 90 per cent of the total number of successful telephone deceptions in the past three months.
Conmen tricking the city's gullible or elderly are nothing new, but police are concerned about the speed at which this scam has spread from the mainland, the volume of cash netted in a short period and the fact that even sophisticated and aware people are parting with money.
The swindle starts when a victim receives a call from a mainland number. The caller asks the victim to guess who he is. When the victim says a name, the trickster pretends to be that person and says he has changed his number. In some cases, the conman even knows the names or nicknames of the victims.
No demands for cash are made at first as the conman plants a seed in the victim's mind. He calls back within days with an even more convincing story about other friends or claiming to have been arrested and be in urgent need of money.
Then the victim is directed to deposit about 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (HK$1,173 to HK$2,346) into a mainland account through a currency exchange kiosk, so it will be more difficult to trace. The caller approaches the victim several more times after the first payment and increases the amount demanded each time. One was asked to transfer money six times and lost 420,000 yuan.
Police say this type of scam has been prevalent on the mainland for years but only reached Hong Kong a few months ago. Out of the 345 successful phone deceptions in the past three months, 306 were of this type.
The money involved was nearly half the HK$24 million conned out of people in phone scams this year.
Unlike other scams, in which most victims were elderly, people of a wider age range fell for the new type of deception, police said.
Louis Kwan Chung-yin, acting chief inspector of Kowloon East regional crime unit, said the callers could obtain such large sums from the victims because they knew how to gain their trust.
Sandra Chui Yui-luen, chief inspector of regional crime prevention in Kowloon West, said that because the amount the caller demanded was not big and the calls were with number displays, the victims were usually not wary when told to transfer funds.
She said people should not reveal names and should check with their friends and family if they received suspicious calls. They should also ask questions like why the caller needed the money and why they could not meet the caller in person.
Chui said the police would increase co-operation with mainland law enforcement agencies to tackle the scams. Mainland police are also looking at ways to freeze the bank accounts of conmen.
In the first 10 months of the year, there were 1,191 cases of telephone deception, 4 per cent fewer than in the same period last year. The deception success rate is down from 31.2 per cent to 22.4 per cent.
But police handled 311 telephone scam cases in November alone.
Meanwhile, a 39-year-old mainland man appeared in Kowloon City Court yesterday accused of calling a 77-year-old woman on Tuesday, saying her son had been kidnapped and demanding she leave HK$200,000 in a flower bed in a Sham Shui Po park.
A typical conversation
A - conman; B - victim
A: Hello, it's me.
B: Who are you?
A: I am your relative on the mainland. Do you remember me?
B: Um ... Are you John?
A: Oh Yes. How is it going? I've changed my phone number. I am travelling to Hong Kong soon. Let's see if we can meet up.
[A few days later.]
A: Hello. This is John. I have been arrested on the mainland and I need 2,000 yuan. Can you transfer the sum to my account through a currency exchange kiosk? I'm desperate.
[The victim transfers the money as instructed and the conman gets back in touch with him several times, asking for more money.]