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Scams and swindles

Online romance scam record for Hong Kong as Wan Chai businesswoman loses US$23 million to ‘British engineer’

Victim transferred money to a con artist overseas in a series of transactions over four years

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 1:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 11:31pm

A 66-year-old businesswoman has become Hong Kong’s biggest victim of an online romance scam after being duped out of HK$180 million (US$23 million) over four years by an “engineer from Britain”.

The money she lost was nearly seven times the previous HK$26.4 million record for a single ruse, which was swindled out of a public housing tenant over a period of 18 months.

The latest case came to light after the Wan Chai woman had a conversation with her family and realised she was being duped. She contacted police last month.

A con artist posing as an overseas engineer befriended her on online platform Lovestruck in April 2014, and the pair established a relationship, according to a law enforcement source.

“The fraudster claimed he had financial difficulties with his business, and asked the victim for money repeatedly between May 2014 and July this year,” police said in a statement.

The source described the victim as “wealthy”. It was understood she is a widow and runs a real estate investment company in the city.

The woman was duped into transferring the cash to bank accounts in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Britain and Germany, in more than 200 transactions.

“The scammer claimed he needed money urgently for an engineering project, and he promised to pay it back after completion of the project,” the source said.

The victim never met the man throughout their four-year relationship.

According to official statistics, online romance cheats conned 272 Hongkongers out of a total of HK$137 million in the first six months of this year. The number was a significant rise on the 78 cases in the same period last year, which involved HK$36.4 million.

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In the whole of last year, police handled 235 cases of online romance fraud, involving losses of HK$108 million. In 2016, there were 114 such reports totalling HK$95 million, and in 2015, officers handled 52 reports in which swindlers bagged HK$32.4 million. Ninety per cent of the victims were women.

The previous monetary record for a single scam involved a 56-year-old woman who lost HK$26.4 million in 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 Hong Kong police force’s anti-fraud squad managed to recover just HK$2 million from local bank accounts.

The city’s longest-running scam involved a finance manager who lost HK$14 million to a con artist posing as a British film director. Their online relationship lasted eight years and she never met him in person.

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Scammers typically pose as white male entrepreneurs, professionals or military veterans, and befriend potential victims through internet platforms.

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.

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

In the past two months, an average of one report a day was made to police about online love scams. Most victims lost anything between hundreds of thousands and millions of Hong Kong dollars, another source said.

Some had told police they knew of such tricks through newspaper and television reports, but could not believe they had fallen prey themselves.

“They could not believe they had been scammed because they felt deep in the relationship and did not want to pull out,” the source said. The scammers were very good at pretending to be “considerate”.