Gift exchanges the latest ruse as online love scams continue to burn Hongkongers
Police say amount of internet swindling between January and May more than doubled on same period last year, with losses hitting HK$119 million
Dressed in a light-coloured jacket, Winnie Yau, 36, walks up the stairs at Mong Kok MTR station to Nathan Road. On this breezy Hong Kong night in May, she quells a rush of excitement as her phone lights up with a message: “I have arrived”.
It is from her date, Pak Tsao. The two met through an app and chatted for about a week before deciding to go on their first date.
But before they even sit down for dinner, Yau is already poorer by HK$2,000 (US$255), after buying a suit for the man, also in his 30s.
He picked out the clothing for himself at a shop and sweet-talked her into the purchase, claiming it was his birthday and demanding they exchange gifts.
He gives her a crystal bracelet, claiming it cost thousands of dollars.
But it was not serendipity that brought the two together – only shady masterminds behind an organised crime syndicate.
“What a coincidence,” Yau, who works at a publishing company, says, recalling her naivety.
“We’ve never met, and he never mentioned the occasion previously, but there he was, asking for a present.”
Yau is one of many women who have fallen prey to online dating scams, a rising trend in Hong Kong, with authorities reporting a surge in such cases.
On Wednesday, police revealed in the first six months of the year, 272 people were duped out of a total of HK$137 million in scams similar to the one Yau encountered.
More than 203 of those conned were women.
Police said the number of internet love scams reported between January and May more than doubled compared with the 63 cases in the same period of 2017. Losses totalled HK$119.1 million. This amount was already more than the figure for the whole of last year, which was HK$107.9 million.
The city’s fast-paced lifestyle, which gives rise to more lonely souls taking to the digital realm through a lack of time for dating, means criminals are finding it easier to target victims looking for love.
“People in Hong Kong are extremely busy, and they often don’t have the time it takes to create close, interpersonal relationships,” says Paul Wong Wai-ching, an associate professor from the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong.
Wong adds he is not surprised victims of the scams are overwhelmingly female, and points to overseas studies that have found a similar correlation.
Understanding why, however, is a different matter.
“It may be that women are more social [both on and offline] than men or simply that men are more likely to be scammers.”
The gift of deceit
“We chatted for at least a week before Pak wanted to meet up. From our exchanges, he was quite the sweet-talker,” Yau says.
Intoxicated by his flattering words, she did not become suspicious that he only responded to her every six hours or so.
“He appeared to be caring, listened to my problems and seemed to be interested. That was what threw me off and made me vulnerable.”
Yau says Pak would frequently post pictures on social media, showing an active, healthy lifestyle and portraying himself as a dutiful son who took good care of his parents.
As the two flirted online, Yau shared her deepest thoughts and secrets.
“He told me he was falling for me and how he admired me. He would send pictures of bits and pieces of his daily life and acted as if he really wanted to know me,” she says.
Police say that after gaining the victims’ trust, scammers then come up with various ploys to cheat them into transferring money. Reasons range from financial difficulties to fines or medical emergencies.
In the latest trend, victims have been tricked into buying “birthday gifts” costing anything from HK$1,000 to HK$6,000.
Earlier this month, a 24-year-old fitness trainer was arrested on suspicion of being involved in at least 18 cases between February and June.
The scams usually follow the same pattern, starting with the fraudsters gaining insight into the backgrounds of the victims by making use of social media. They then become acquainted with their targets and move on to having a closer relationship – a modus operandi observed by Sham Shui Po district councillor Ramon Yuen Hoi-man from the Democratic Party, who has been helping victims, including Yau, since February. He says he has received at least 10 complaints of this nature.
Yuen says fraudsters, instead of asking for cash directly, have turned to the idea of exchanging gifts to avoid blowing their cover.
“Scammers ask victims to pay for the gifts in cash or with their debit cards, but never with credit cards, so they can return the merchandise for refunds later,” Yuen says.
They also took pains to ensure they did not get caught on surveillance cameras in shops.
Yau says of her case: “When I was lining up at the cashier, he left the store. He asked me to hold the shopping bag and give him his ‘present’ when we were at a nearby park.”
Pak has since stopped contacting Yau, when she finally caught on to his act and confronted him with Yuen’s help. The matter is now being investigated by police.
Online vs real life
Dennis Wong Sing-wing, a professor of criminology at the department of social and behavioural sciences at City University, says those most at risk from romance scams are lonely and single.
“They may have previously experienced failed relationships, so they’re longing to feel a kind of ‘loving concern’ through other channels.
“They’re trying to make a connection with other people through cyber encounters. They like the idea a person is listening to their feelings,” Wong says.
But while that sounds understandable, what is it that makes people readily give up large sums of money to those they have never met?
In the case of Ben Leung, 46, one of the rarer male victims, it was the hope of building a meaningful relationship. Leung was cheated out of thousands of dollars last year after a woman took him to a beauty salon on their first date.
She then persuaded him into buying an expensive treatment.
“I trusted her because I thought we had the foundation of a friendship, and it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to think it over,” he recalls, detailing the awkward moment when he was stuck inside a room and left with no choice but to sign a contract.
Wong says: “Part of building a relationship is the give-and-take process. Those ensnared in this type of relationship are trying to share what they have in exchange for continuing the bond. It’s another type of addiction.”
Wong draws parallels with other modern, tech-based phenomena such as video gaming among children and teens, and says romance scams take that human impulse and use it in an even more insidious way.
“The scammers use positive reinforcement and words to engage potential victims,” he says. “This makes them give up their rationality. It’s something like hypnosis.”
Wong recalls cases of perpetrators using highly sophisticated, carefully produced scripts to dupe their victims, at the level of professional actors.
“They have ready-made packages to attract certain types of women based on their personality type,” he says.
“They rehearse different scenarios – and many of them have been practising for a long time.”
And his advice to guard against this new breed of con artists: “Treat your online relationships the same as you would your relationships in real life. After all, online is real life.”
ONLINE DATING DOS AND DON’TS
Here are some tips from police and experts on proper online safeguards when searching for love in cyberspace:
● Be mindful of those touting themselves as the perfect companion. Honest people searching for a genuine relationship online would not oversell themselves.
● Upon meeting someone online, do research to see if the person is who he/she claims to be. Look for mutual friend connections or other posts on his/her page to decide for yourself if anything is amiss.
● Do not casually disclose personal information and photos of yourself to someone you have just met online.
● Do not respond to suspicious requests, such as meeting in private places or sending private photos.
● Adopt proper privacy measures to protect your personal information while online.
● Reject any requests for money, presents or personal information.
● If the online relationship blossoms into a physical meeting, do not reveal too much of yourself on the first encounter.
● Try not to give the impression you are immature, desperate or inexperienced.
● Approach police if you suspect you have been targeted in an online scam.