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Many overseas investors have found themselves duped in Hong Kong-based stock scams. Photo: Sam Tsang

Hong Kong online stocks con men use romance, get-rich-quick schemes to trick victims in Singapore, Macau

  • Fraudsters fool victims outside Hong Kong into putting millions into ‘pump and dump’ scam
  • Spike in online investment fraud cases up to October, with 379 reports involving HK$196 million

For three weeks earlier this year, a female executive in Singapore was wooed over the phone by a sweet-talking Hong Kong man who professed his love for her and said he could not wait for her to meet his parents.

When he told her to put all her savings into a hot stock, she did as he suggested. Then she watched in horror as the share price crashed, her phone lover vanished and she found herself HK$700,000 (US$90,300) poorer.

“This pain will be with me for the rest of my life,” said Jessica Lee*, 41, one of the latest victims of a “pump and dump” investment scam.

Hong Kong-based fraudsters have extended their get-rich-quick online investment scams to places such as Singapore and Macau, leaving victims like Lee with nowhere to turn for help.
Some have lost millions in so-called pump and dump stock scams. Photo: Nora Tam

Lee and two others told the Post how they fell victim to Hong Kong fraudsters. A project manager in Macau said he lost HK$3 million, and it dashed his hopes of buying a home or expanding his wife’s business. A man in Singapore who said he lost considerably less – HK$20,000 – still cannot believe he was fooled, because he considered himself a savvy investor.

All three reported the cases to Hong Kong authorities, but do not expect to get their money back. They asked what the city’s authorities were doing to stop these scammers.

From January to October this year, police received 379 reports of online investment frauds involving HK$196.3 million. This was more than double the 167 cases, and more than four times the HK$48.6 million in losses, reported last year.

In these online investment scams, fraudsters with considerable holdings of specific stocks befriend victims and persuade them to invest. Victims snap up the stock, helping to drive up the price. But as soon as the price peaks, the fraudsters dump their holdings and make a killing, while their hapless victims are left watching as the price collapses.

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The Post has previously reported about Hong Kong retail investors who lost their savings in such online market manipulation frauds during the coronavirus pandemic, as more people gripped by financial insecurity have taken to speculation in the stock market for quick money.

‘I have to start from zero’

Leo Santos*, 43, a project manager working in Macau, said that in April, a stranger popped up on his phone, inviting him to join a WhatsApp chat group whose three administrators claimed they could offer stock tips to generate big gains quickly.

“They showed their previous successes,” he recalled. “I was curious to see what they had to offer. At the time, I did not know how scammers work.”

Acting on their tips, Santos made more than HK$177,000 on the Hong Kong stock market. The fraudsters would text him a day in advance to get ready to sell his stocks and reap a profit, and ask him to send them a screenshot of his transaction.

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His initial success from acting on their tips made him trust the fraudsters more, and he eventually put down more than HK$3.5 million in stocks such as Tu Yi Holding and Sang Hing Holdings. 

He recalled the Friday afternoon in April when he was told to sell everything. Instead of selling high, he was aghast when the stock prices crashed rapidly.

He tried desperately to reach the people he had been dealing with, but nobody took his calls. “They all disappeared,” he said.

Realising he had been duped, he sold all his shares that day and lost 85 per cent of his investment, about HK$3 million. “If I was not in good health, I would definitely have had a heart attack,” he said.

He was devastated as he and his 43-year-old wife were planning to buy a house or expand her restaurant business.

“Now we have to cancel our plans,” he said. “Our dream was so close to coming true, but now it has slipped from our hands. I have to start again from zero.”

‘He showered me with love’

Singapore executive Jessica Lee is still not over the trauma of the fake online love affair that led her to put all her cash savings of about HK$1.2 million into a “pump and dump” scam.

Those found guilty of engaging in manipulative stock market activities face maximum penalties of 10 years in prison, and a fine of up to HK$10 million. Photo: Winson Wong

She said that in June, she clicked on an investment-related WhatsApp link on Facebook, which took her to a Chinese chat group run by someone called “Teacher” who claimed his investment tips helped people earn quick money. About 60 members in the group kept heaping praise on him for his insightful market analyses.

“Teacher” ordered members to obey his instructions and send him screenshots of their investment transactions, threatening to kick out anyone who did not do as he said.

At first Lee had her doubts about him. Then someone from the group named Lee Pok began chatting with her, introducing himself as a “moderately successful” businessman in Hong Kong and sharing his life story as an orphan who was adopted by a couple.

“He talked sweetly and showered me with lots of love,” Lee recalled. “We chatted about daily life matters, our retirement plans and his business.”

Within three weeks, Lee Pok was swearing his love for her, promising to take her to meet his parents if she came to Hong Kong. Smitten, Lee found herself falling in love.

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In mid July, he persuaded her to put all her savings, about HK$1.2 million, in a stock recommended by “Teacher” – AL Group – and she bought the shares at about HK$0.17. That was the first time she bought a Hong Kong stock. “I lost my senses,” she said.

A few days later, the worst happened. She was suddenly blocked from the group, and the stock price started to plummet. Lee realised she had been tricked all along, and Lee Pok was part of the scam. She sold her shares, losing about HK$700,000.

She suffered insomnia for a long time afterwards, feeling deeply distressed and ashamed that she fell for the love ruse.

“I feel extremely depressed and keep blaming myself for my own stupidity,” she said.

Three months later, Lee discovered that the phone number used by Lee Pok was active again. However, the WhatsApp photo with the number was no longer that of a middle-aged man, but a pretty young woman.

She tried reporting the scam to the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), Hong Kong’s stock market regulator, but said all she received was an automated reply.

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Under the Securities and Futures Ordinance, those found guilty of engaging in manipulative stock market activities or transactions face maximum penalties of 10 years in prison, and a fine of up to HK$10 million.

Wiser now, Lee had this advice for others: “No one will give you free tips to earn money. Don’t be greedy and get yourself into all these traps.”

Savvy investor’s downfall

Edmund Wong*, 42, a professional in the telecommunications sector in Singapore, was curious when someone named Maggie approached him over the Telegram messaging app and invited him to join a group run by “Teacher Li”, an investment expert.

Considering himself a savvy investor, Wong thought there was no harm in knowing more. In the group, Teacher Li made recommendations of certain stocks and asked for a commission if members made a profit from his tips.

A screenshot of the WhatsApp profile of ‘Teacher Li’. Photo: Handout

Seeing that Teacher Li made accurate tips, Wong took his advice and put HK$20,000 into buying Skymission Group shares at HK$2.50 apiece. Maggie asked him to show a screenshot of his transaction.

It was not long before the stock price collapsed to HK$0.29, and Wong realised he had been duped.

He could not bring himself to tell anyone. “I was shocked and ashamed of myself, considering that I’m a financially savvy person.”

Shocked that such a scam existed, he reported to the SFC but did not believe the Hong Kong authorities could do much. “I’m not holding out any hope of recovering the money, for two reasons – I am based overseas, and I believe legally, it is not a strong case as I bought the stocks myself.”

Having learned how rampant the “pump and dump” scam has been, especially this year, he said: “I don’t think the Hong Kong government has done enough, because this type of scam is too frequent and there was no follow-up after I sent an email to SFC.”

For victim Santos, in Macau, there was a postscript some time after he lost his money. A man calling himself Kevin contacted him one day and confessed that he was part of the scam and had earned a 10 per cent commission on stock sales by those tricked by the group.

Kevin claimed he felt bad about the way Santos lost his money and offered to make it up to him by letting him earn the same commission if he introduced new members to the group.

A purported repentant scammer named ‘Kevin’ contacted one victim to encourage him to engage in similar practices himself. Photo: Handout

Santos kept up their exchange of texts to understand more about how the fraudsters worked so he could tell the authorities. Still overwhelmed by being deceived, he did not accept Kevin’s offer.

“It’s difficult to go back and open an old wound,” he said, adding that there should be alerts on trading platforms to warn people of possible scams.

He filed a report with the SFC last week and received a reply saying he would hear back within two weeks.

Police urged investors to discuss with their family members and consult qualified people before investing in any financial products.

“Enrich your financial and wealth management knowledge by paying attention to the scam prevention information provided by the Investor Education Centre and the police to avoid falling prey to such scams,” a police spokeswoman said.

If in doubt, people could report suspected cases to police or call the anti-scam helpline 18222.

*Names of interviewees changed at their request.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fraudsters use stock market to swindle victims