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Scams and swindles

Number of Hongkongers falling prey to online romance scams surges almost 250 per cent

Police issue warning to residents after con artists tricked victims out of HK$137 million in the first half of 2018

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 10:59pm

More than 270 Hongkongers were conned out of HK$137 million (US$17.4 million) in online romance scams in the first half of this year, almost a 250 per cent rise compared with the number of such reports in the same period last year, Hong Kong police revealed on Wednesday.

The money stolen was also 3.8 times more than the total losses bagged by swindlers in such scams in the same period last year.

“Scammers usually posed as professional foreigners or soldiers to find victims on social media,” Li Chi-hang, director of crime and security, said at a press conference while revealing Hong Kong’s crime situation for the first half of this year. “After establishing trust with the victims, scammers conned money out of them by all means.”

The warning came as the city recorded its lowest crime rate since 1977, with 26,550 crime cases being reported in the first half of this year.

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Law enforcement sources believed two syndicates based in Asia and run by Nigerian con artists were behind most of this year’s online romance fraud cases. “We have sought help from overseas law enforcement agencies to track down the gangs,” one source said.

According to official statistics, the number of deception cases rose 3.1 per cent to 3,671 in the first six months of this year from 3,561 in the same period last year. Among them, online romance scammers cheated 272 people out of HK$137 million in the first six months this year, compared with just 78 cases involving HK$36.4 million in the same period last year.

During all of 2017, police handled 235 cases of online romance fraud involving total losses of HK$108 million. In 2016, there were 114 such reports in which swindlers bagged HK$95 million, and in 2015 police handled 52 reports involving losses of HK$32.4 million.

According to police, 90 per cent of the victims were women.

They know more background information about their targets so they can invent more excuses to cheat and the chance of success also increases
Police source

The worst case 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 the city, 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 longest lasting online love scam involved a finance manager who lost HK$14 million to a con artist who posed as a British film director and contacted her through a dating website in 2010.

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She had an online relationship with him for eight years but never met him in person. She called police in April after realising she had been swindled.

Another source said the increase in the number of cases and swindled money was because scammers spent more time studying the backgrounds of their targets before befriending them and winning their trust.

“They know more background information about their targets so they can invent more excuses to cheat and the chance of success also increases,” he said.

Scammers typically pose as white men, claiming to be entrepreneurs, professionals or military veterans, and befriend potential victims online.

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After establishing 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.

According to police, the victims usually did not meet their “lovers” throughout the deception, which generally lasted between one and three months.

To avoid falling victim to such scams, police advised refraining from revealing too much personal information on social media.

Overall, Hong Kong police’s general detection rate reached 45 per cent in the first half of this year. Besides deception, the number of homicides also surged by 54.5 per cent to 17 cases – the biggest surge among all crime categories.

Reported “indecent assaults” and “wounding and serious assaults” both climbed by 3.7 per cent to 537 and 2,316 respectively.