Foreign syndicates behind surge in online romance scams targeting Hongkongers
Police source says joint operation with overseas agencies possible to crack down on transnational gangs that cheated victims out of HK$36 million in first six months
At least two foreign-based syndicates headed by online romance scammers from Africa have played a big part in a 66 per cent surge in the number of Hong Kong victims and losses totalling HK$36.4 million in the first half of this year, the Post has learned.
Police insiders revealed their investigations turned up two rackets operating from Asian countries, prompting the city’s authorities to seek help from overseas law enforcement agencies to track down their ringleaders and operation bases.
“The mastermind of one of the syndicates is believed to be from Nigeria,” a police source said.
He added intelligence showed their operational centres were set up in Asian countries where local residents were recruited to find targets through online dating platforms and befriend them.
“Most of the money involved was transferred into bank accounts in Asian countries such as Taiwan before authorities lost track of it,” he said.
Citing operational concerns, the sources refused to disclose further details about the two syndicates.
“It is possible a joint operation will be mounted with overseas law enforcement agencies to crack down on transnational syndicates,” another police source said.
The sources believed the two syndicates were behind most of the 78 online romance fraud cases Hong Kong police handled in the first six months of this year.
The force mounted an unprecedented joint operation with Malaysian and Nigerian police in December to bust an online romance syndicate that operated in Malaysia and had duped 73 Hong Kong women out of HK$58 million since 2014. Thirteen people were arrested in Malaysia.
Last month police from Hong Kong and Taiwan arrested 53 people – five Hongkongers, two mainland Chinese and 46 Taiwanese – in a joint operation against a Taiwan-based syndicate running online romance scams and investment frauds that duped 220 Taiwanese residents out of HK$113 million. Most of the victims were women.
In Hong Kong, online romance scammers swindled 78 people out of HK$36.4 million in the first six months of this year – a 66 per cent increase compared with 47 cases involving HK$36.8 million in the same period last year.
This year’s biggest individual victim was understood to have been conned out of more than HK$4 million.
For the whole of last year, police handled 114 cases of online romance fraud involving total losses of HK$95 million. In 2015 there were 62 such reports costing HK$32.42 million, and in 2014 police handled 29 cases involving losses of HK$30.3 million.
According to police, over 90 per cent of the victims were women, and most victims were aged between 30 and 50.
Provisional figures of the city’s 2016-end population from the Census and Statistics Department showed there were almost 600,000 more women than men.
Scammers typically disguise as “Caucasian” Western men, claiming to be entrepreneurs, professionals or military personnel. They find targets via online dating platforms and befriend victims. After establishing relationships and trust, swindlers invent excuses to ask victims to send money to overseas bank accounts. Fraudsters then disappear after the transactions.
Police said the victims usually did not meet their “lovers” throughout the deception, which generally lasted between one and three months.
Despite the city’s overall crime rate declining in recent years, the number of deception cases rose 5.7 per cent year on year, to 3,561, in the first six months of this year. This uptick prompted the force last month to set up an anti-deception coordination centre.