Chinese diaspora in US, Canada and Australia new targets for phone scammers claiming to be mainland diplomats, Hong Kong police say
Force sees shift away from city amid sharp drop in such swindles
Con artists impersonating mainland diplomats are now targeting ethnic Chinese living in North America and Australia as the number of phone scams locally drops sharply, Hong Kong law enforcement sources have revealed.
A spate of phone scam cases abroad has prompted Chinese embassies and consulates in the United States, Canada and Australia to warn ethnic Chinese living in those countries to stay alert to such fraudulent calls.
Hong Kong police are also involved. About 30 ethnic Chinese people living in those countries fell victim and were conned into transferring more than US$4 million (HK$31.3 million) into bank accounts in the city in the first five months of 2018, according to law enforcement sources. The force handled at least one such case in the whole of last year.
The accounts were believed to have been controlled by underground money changers from mainland China who charge a percentage of the swindled money to help scammers launder the crime proceeds, according to a law enforcement source.
“Investigations show that within days of the deposits in Hong Kong, the money was usually transferred into bank accounts on the mainland and overseas before being moved around the world,” he said.
He said Hong Kong was just one of the places international fraudsters use to launder ill-gotten gains.
Among the 30 victims, an elderly woman living in the US was the biggest loser. She was conned into transferring US$1.3 million into two bank accounts in the city. US police in January sought help from their Hong Kong counterparts, who helped the victim recover US$120,000.
Initial information showed a con artist posed as an official from the Chinese embassy in Washington and telephoned the victim in December. The scammer accused the woman of being involved in a drug trafficking case in China, another source said. The call was then transferred to a man who claimed to be a mainland policeman.
“The victim was instructed to transfer the money into bank accounts in Hong Kong as a surety and she was promised the money would be sent back to her once she was proved innocent,” he said.
She transferred US$1.3 million in five transactions into two bank accounts in the city. Later realising it was a scam, the woman called US police, who alerted Hong Kong officers.
The victims also included a university student studying in Vancouver, who was accused of being involved in a mainland crime. The student was duped into transferring C$100,000 (US$77,300) into a bank account in Hong Kong on May 1.
The telephone deception also reached Australia, where a woman in her 30s was convinced into transferring A$120,000 (US$91,900) into a bank account in Hong Kong on May 28.
As the pair realised they had been cheated and sought help from Hong Kong police within days of the money transfers, officers from the force’s Anti-Deception Coordination Centre stopped the money from being funnelled out of the accounts.
Scammers typically impersonate officials from Chinese embassies or consulates and tell targets they have an important document or parcel to collect. The ruse is meant to obtain their personal details to issue a fake arrest warrant. Swindlers then accuse victims of breaking mainland laws before they are passed to someone claiming to be a mainland police officer. Some victims are directed to a website showing the bogus arrest warrant. The scammers then ask for money as a surety or some other reason.
Beijing’s consulate in Toronto issued a warning in April saying Chinese embassies and consulates in the US, Australia and Canada, as well as the foreign ministry’s global consular protection and service emergency call centre, had received an increasing number of reports from Chinese citizens and foreign nationals about such fraudulent calls.
“In many cases, the perpetrators are able to simulate the phone numbers of Chinese embassies or consulates, so as to make their calls seem more credible,” the Chinese consulate in Toronto said in the statement.
“In light of this situation, please be reminded again that these calls are not made by Chinese embassies or consulates.”
The authority stressed that Chinese embassies and consulates would never notify parties by telephone or recorded messages regarding any documents, parcels to be collected or legal cases to be handled.
“Nor will they request personal information, such as a bank account or ID number over the phone,” it said.
In Hong Kong, police issued a scam alert saying that, since early 2018, telephone deception had been “spreading” to overseas Chinese communities.
“Please remind your relatives and friends residing overseas to stay alert,” the force said on its website.
The sources said local police were trying to track down the holders of bank accounts used to collecting the swindled money. They said the force would enhance intelligence exchanges with mainland and overseas law enforcement agencies to fight such illegal activities.
The number of phone scams dropped by 57 per cent to 119 in the city in the first four months of this year, while there was a 5 per cent rise in the total number of scams. The deception cases included phone scams, online shopping fraud, online romance scams and commercial email fraud.
In the whole of last year, police handled 991 reports of phone scams in which swindlers bagged HK$229.4 million. In 2016, there were 1,138 cases involving HK$221.6 million.