Seven classic Hong Kong scams, from fake China crime probes to romance cons
Following news this week of a woman who became the city’s biggest victim yet of an online love scam, we look at some of the other common financial cons that have cost Hong Kong citizens millions over the years
For a place that is known for how much it reveres money, Hong Kong has a lot of gullible people. They have been duped in all manner of financial scams over the years.
The latest case emerged this week: a 56-year-old woman living in public housing who has become the biggest victim yet of an online love scam in Hong Kong, losing HK$26.4 million (US$3.4 million) in just 18 months.
The fraudster, who posed as a financial analyst in Malaysia, befriended the Sha Tin resident on Facebook in June 2016. The victim, who is a supervisor in the accounts department of a local trading company, blew her life savings on her long-distance lover before borrowing millions from family, friends and banks.
This is not an isolated case, however, with many others being made to look foolish because of some dodgy dealings. Here are some of the most egregious examples.
Veteran Chinese soprano cheated out of HK$20 million
The biggest single victim until this week of phone fraudsters was Chinese soprano Li Yuanrong, who was duped over the phone in 2015 by fraudsters pretending to be Chinese officials.
Li received a call from a man claiming to be a Hong Kong postal official, informing her that she was accused of involvement in a deception case in China. The singer was tricked into transferring a total of HK$20 million into several Chinese bank accounts in six or seven payments.
Li was one of 308 Hong Kong victims of phone scams who were cheated out of a total of HK$126 million the same month.
Con men sold pills to ‘cure’ Y2K bug
In 1999, con men who claimed the millennium bug could be cured with stomach pills cheated two women out of HK$160,000 in Kwun Tong and Aberdeen.
The victims were shown pills they said could tackle the supposed ailment, also known as the Y2K bug. The bug was not in fact physical – the phrase was coined to refer to fears that computers would malfunction when their clocks turned over from the second to the third millennium on January 1, 2000.
The women were told they could make a lot of money by buying and then reselling the pills. When no one wanted to buy them, the women called police and discovered the pills were for stomach pain.
Millennium bug batteries for sale
Also in 1999, a gang of fraudsters talked a woman into paying HK$700,000 for batteries they claimed were electronic components used to solve the Y2K bug problem. The victim was offered a quick profit by buying and reselling the “components”, which turned out to be 4,000 cell batteries.
Judge Fergal Sweeney described the con as a “classic form of street deception that has become so prevalent in Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s biggest victim of email fraud
A private equity fund company that was involved in the largest sale of shopping centres in Hong Kong became the city’s biggest victim of email fraud in 2017 after being conned out of HK$39 million.
The Link Reit, the largest real estate investment trust in Asia, announced the sale of properties including 17 shopping centres in Hong Kong to Gaw Capital for HK$23 billion. A fraudster – posing as a client – sent a deceptive email to the manager of a Gaw Capital branch in Causeway Bay, requiring the firm to withdraw US$5 million from its account and transfer the amount to a local bank account, a police source told the Post at the time. The firm only realised it was a scam when the genuine client contacted the company.
Blessing scams on the rise
With blessing scams, small groups of fraudsters take advantage of elderly citizens, promising blessings of protection and, in the process, depriving victims of their valuables. Such scams have provided criminal gangs, mostly from China, with easy pickings in Hong Kong for the last two decades.
In the first two months of 2018 (the most recent months for which data is available), there were eight cases, involving total losses of HK$1.08 million. The number of reported cases has increased dramatically since 2016, with fraudsters targeting the elderly and extracting millions of dollars from them in cash and valuables.
Love that comes at a cost
In 2017 a Kuala Lumpur-based syndicate duped 48 Hong Kong women and one elderly man out of HK$29.5 million in online romance scams. One victim lost HK$6 million to a con artist pretending to be a British engineer.
This classic romance scam involved criminals striking up online relationships with the victims under false pretences, often over several months. Once they had gained their victim’s trust, they invented a pretext to ask them for money. The biggest loser was a senior executive at a Hong Kong company, who was conned out of HK$6 million in nearly 20 transactions over six months.
Jobseekers fall prey to con artists
Con artists scammed about HK$3 million out of their job-seeking victims in Hong Kong in the first quarter this year – almost three times as much money as for the whole of 2017 – with three youngsters who were offered bogus opportunities for paid online gaming among those duped.
Potential victims were taken to a fast-food restaurant or a park for a “job interview”. After being promised employment, the victims were tricked into revealing their bank account information, such as their e-banking password, or even into handing over their bank cards.