Hong Kong must take multi-pronged approach to beat phone scammers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 1:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 1:30am

The digital age was made for fraudsters. As they get more sophisticated, their victims remain as gullible or vulnerable as ever. This makes phone and internet scams a growth industry. But nothing prepared our police for the surge in telephone scams last month, when con artists posing as mainland officials fleeced Hongkongers of HK$85.4 million.

In the first four weeks of July police received 729 cases, compared with 200 cases involving HK$26.7 million in the six months to the end of June. Typically, Cantonese or Putonghua-speaking fraudsters, claiming to represent authorities including Beijing's liaison office, tell victims they have broken mainland laws and direct them to bogus government websites where they are shown forged arrest warrants or injunctions containing their photos and other personal details and asked for money. One case resulted in the arrest of a local woman working for a mainland syndicate that cheated a retired woman out of HK$200,000, later transferred to the mainland.

These cases are not entirely original. Police have expressed concern in the past about scams in which the perpetrators who know the victim's name and phone number pretend to be a relative from the mainland and ask for financial help, or pose as the father or boyfriend of a woman who they claim has been made pregnant by the victim's son.

In Fujian and other places apparently entire villages have engaged in these kinds of scams, which generally target vulnerable, elderly people. As a result, mainland banks broadcast messages in their ATM areas, urging people to think twice before depositing money in someone else's account.

The scams are also getting more sophisticated, in the use of forged documents, for example. In this day and age, a complete stranger can easily get hold of personal information to make him or her credible to the victim. It is not known whether fake-official frauds actually originate from the mainland, given that hundreds of mainlanders also work the phones from Taiwan and the Philippines. That makes it more difficult for the authorities to combat them. Unfortunately, this kind of crime is here to stay. There needs to be a multi-pronged approach to deterring it, consisting of education of the vulnerable in particular, a well resourced police effort to combat it without taking officers off other cases, and cooperation with cross-border authorities. Banks can help, too, by being alert to clients who want to transfer large sums of money to third parties.