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Scams and swindles

Huge explosion in online romance scams in Hong Kong in 2018, with victims swindled out of US$57.6 million

  • Police warned people to be alert when making friends online and to take any request to send money as sign of a scam
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 8:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 10:59pm

Cyber scammers cheated Hongkongers out of HK$451 million (US$57.6 million) in the first 10 months of this year, up from HK$109 million for the same period in 2017. And the vast majority of the victims were love-struck individuals being exploited.

Figures revealed by Hong Kong police on Sunday showed 1,777 social media scam reports were received between January and October, up from the 808 cases for the same period last year.

Among the losses, some HK$417.1 million, or about 92 per cent, involved internet love scams, compared to HK$84.5 million; there were 520 such cases, up from 170 in 2017.

The spike in cases and the scale of the money involved prompted police to warn the public to be alert when making friends online and ignore them if they demanded payment, which, police warned, was a “foolproof indication” of a scam.

Police Hong Kong Island regional commander Yu Tat-chung said victims of cyber scams were not necessarily old or uneducated.

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“Social media is not usually used by elderly people. People using social media are young people or heavy mobile phone users,” said Yu, who was speaking to the press after officiating at a ceremony in Causeway Bay on Sunday to launch an anti-deception campaign “Project Scam Defender”.

“There are many social media. One that is very popular today can become outdated tomorrow and a new one can spring up. But there is one simple thing users can keep in mind. For whatever social media scams or any scams, the swindlers’ ultimate aim is your money.

“So, when you get to a point where you are asked for money, whether it is to buy points cards or transfer money to their accounts, you should be very much alert that this might be – and to me it is 100 per cent – a scam.”

Online romance scams have caught more public attention this year after a number of high-profile cases came to light. In September, media reported that a 66-year-old businesswoman was conned out of HK$180 million over four years by an “engineer from Britain”. Her case came to light after the widow discussed her online relationship in a conversation with her family and realised she was being cheated.

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In October, a joint operation by Hong Kong, Malaysian and Singaporean police arrested a total of 52 people and smashed a transnational online romance scam ring that police said duped had more than 140 people out of a total of HK$110 million.

In such cases, fraudsters usually use social media to approach and develop relationships with victims. They will request that the victims make money transfers under different pretexts. In some cases, when the victims get suspicious, other fraudsters will show up claiming to be police officers and ask the victims to pay handling fees to get their money back.

Alert over increase in online scams as e-commerce grows

Another popular trick involves scammers hijacking victims’ social media accounts and asking the victims’ friends to transfer money or points cards for online games. Online shopping was also a minefields for scams, essentially involving ordering a product and never receiving it after payment.

The police’s Hong Kong Island Regional Crime Prevention Office has since early this year promoted public awareness of online scams by working with the operators of popular caller ID and filtering mobile apps to disseminate anti-deception messages. It is also working with Circle K convenience stores to remind customers of scams that demand points cards be bought on behalf of other people by displaying such messages on the screen of their cash registers.