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Scams and swindles

Hong Kong police’s anti-fraud squad froze HK$530 million lost to scammers over past year, with plans to expand unit

Commercial scams topped the list in total losses by victims, while those who fell prey to love scams were the hardest to convince out of traps

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 8:00am

Hong Kong’s police force will increase manpower at its anti-fraud squad by a third, after receiving more than 22,000 calls over the past year and thwarting the transfer of HK$530 million (US$68 million) in funds to scammers.

In cases of commercial fraud through email, scammers cheated victims out of HK$759.4 million in the first six months of the year – the largest loss among all types of scams – with a Spanish electronics company involved in an 11 million (HK$98.6 million) case, the biggest single amount this year.

The Anti-Deception Coordination Centre, set up in July last year with seven officers, has a headcount of 25. The unit has foiled 97 scams so far, with plans to expand its strength to 34 members.

The move came amid increasing numbers of cases, in which con artists cheated victims out of more than HK$1.46 billion in the first half of this year. Ruses involved emails, romance, phone and investment-related activities.

Among the 22,522 calls received since the launch of the centre, 56.5 per cent concerned general inquiries, with another 16.8 per cent centred on suspicious emails and calls.

The squad also dealt with 1,200 requests in cases involving up to HK$3.4 billion in losses. About 16 per cent of these funds, or HK$530 million, were successfully frozen before they could be transferred to the accounts of criminals, mostly in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The force’s Commercial Crime Bureau credited the small team for their efforts, as members worked around the clock to crack cases.

Convincing those who called in for general inquiries that they were victims of deception, a first step in investigations, was not an easy task, the bureau said. This was particularly so for people who fell prey to love scams, which accounted for HK$137.4 million in losses in the first half of the year.

“Many callers did not believe they had been scammed. It takes time to convince them. We don’t just finish a call in five minutes,” Senior Superintendent Kelly Cheng Lai-ki said, adding that she expected the team to expand by early next year.

“Our manpower is tight at the moment. The 25 members have to take calls around the clock, such as contacting banks during office hours to intercept transactions, on top of publicity work to raise awareness.

Hongkonger, 73, loses life savings to scammer posing as female US soldier

“I hope the additional manpower can focus more on intelligence analysis and warn the public against the latest scams.”

The bureau cited an example of a case handled from the 24-hour hotline two weeks ago. A bank employee had called in to report a suspected scam involving HK$200,000. A woman was trying to transfer the sum to her “American soldier boyfriend” stationed in Turkey, whom she had never met.

Officers immediately went to the bank and spent the whole morning talking the woman out of the scam.

The bureau also revealed that in early July a Spanish company transferred HK$98.6 million to a Hong Kong account in nine separate transactions.

Fraudsters had pretended to be its CEO – who was on a business flight at the time – and sent emails to the company’s finance executive, instructing him to transfer money in an acquisition.

The company later realised it was cheated and reported the case to Hong Kong police through its lawyers. The anti-fraud squad managed to freeze HK$60 million of the money conned from the company.

The centre urged victims to report their cases to police as soon as possible so officers can step in before funds are transferred out of the city.