Romance scams triple in Hong Kong as African masterminds recruit in Asia
In first four months of the year, 159 locals lost nearly HK$100 million in such cases
Most of the 159 Hongkongers who lost nearly HK$100 million (US$12.7 million) in online romance scams in the first four months of this year fell victim to scammers from Africa operating from Asian countries, it has emerged, amid a 200 per cent surge in such cases this year.
Based on an analysis of the money transfers and the scammers’ IP addresses, police insiders said at least two foreign-based syndicates were preying on women in Hong Kong through online dating platforms and social media sites such as Facebook.
“We believe the core figures of the gangs are from Africa, who recruited local residents in Asian countries to open bank accounts to collect payments and find targets online,” a police source said.
But he said some scammers worked individually and moved from one country to another across Asia to escape detection.
“We have enhanced intelligence with overseas law enforcement agencies and have sought their assistance to track down the scammers and their bases of operation,” he said. Citing operational reasons, the source declined to disclose further details.
Hong Kong and Malaysian police mounted two joint operations, in December 2016 and October 2017, busting two Kuala Lumpur-based syndicates that duped more than 120 Hong Kong women out of nearly HK$90 million in total. Police said the alleged ringleaders were from Nigeria.
Another source said when such gangs were broken up, the illegal businesses were quickly taken over by people from the same area, who would set up new operational bases as they did not need a lot of money to run the scams.
The latest figures show that 159 people were duped out of HK$98 million in online love scams in the first four months of this year – an increase of more than 200 per cent on the 50 cases in the same period last year, when scammers bagged HK$21 million.
In 2017, 235 people were swindled out of HK$108 million in such scams, more than double the 114 cases in 2016, which involved HK$95 million.
The biggest loser was a 56-year-old woman living in public housing who was conned out of HK$26.4 million over 18 months. The money was transferred to more than 10 bank accounts in Hong Kong, Malaysia and other countries in more than 300 transactions. The victim realised she was being duped in February and contacted the police anti-fraud squad, which managed to recover only HK$2 million from local bank accounts.
The sources said a main factor behind the surge in such cases was the growing number of Hong Kong women looking for love via online dating platforms.
A finance manager lost HK$14 million to a con artist who posed as a British film director and contacted her through a dating website in 2010. She had an online relationship with him for eight years but never met him in person. She called police last month after realising she had been swindled.
Scammers typically pose as white men, claiming to be entrepreneurs, professionals or military veterans. They find targets online and befriend potential victims.
After establishing relationships and trust, the swindlers concoct reasons to ask victims to send money to designated bank accounts. Police say the requests almost always involve needing money urgently to solve a problem overseas.
The force warned that the swindlers were constantly changing their methods.
To avoid falling victim to online dating scams, police advise refraining from revealing too much personal information on social media.