From street con-artists to phone fraud: A history of Hong Kong scams ... and how to avoid becoming another victim
Duped, tricked or just plain cheated, in the city where money is king and they call Li Ka-shing – the man with the most of it – “Superman”, it’s hardly surprising that people will do, and believe in, almost anything for cash.
Over the years Hong Kong has seen them all, from the “holy man” and “magic” herbalist street conmen, whose targets were the elderly and unsure, to the mystery cigarette smoke that leaves unsuspecting victims delirious as their wallets are emptied.
As is the way with scams, the conmen are always one step ahead of the law, and as the sheen comes off the mainland Chinese economic miracle and life savings are wiped-out by stock market uncertainty, the lure of lucre-rich Hong Kong – and the ease of communication in the internet age has seen the traditional rackets morph into something much more untouchable and anonymous.
Highly organised criminals are thought to be behind the recent wave of cross-border telephone scams – the biggest single victim of which, veteran Chinese soprano Li Yuanrong, 73, it emerged on Monday, had been duped out of HK$20 million by telephone tricksters pretending to be mainland law enforcers.
In the past, racketeers travelled to the city to look for their targets – mostly the elderly – on the street, but now they work outside Hong Kong, disconnected and hard to find.
And as the old street deceptions decline, new technology and hunger for hard cash fuelled by a mainland behemoth more money focused than it has ever been, telephone con artists cheated Hongkongers out of HK$126 million in 308 cases last month alone.
“Phone scams are difficult to detect because they operate outside Hong Kong,” a police source said.
“They use computer networks to make phone calls and servers they use could be located in America or Europe. This makes it difficult to track them down.”
READ MORE: Chinese soprano, 73, cheated out of HK$20m in Hong Kong’s biggest phone scam a ‘frugal woman who saves every penny’
But the source said people should still stay alert for old street scams.
One of the most common street scams in the past was the “spiritual blessing” in which fraudsters approached victims – mostly elderly – and played on their superstitions to make them part with their life savings to pay a holy man to make things right.
“Fake herbs” are another con in which victims are offered herbs, pills or medicine and scammers exaggerate their clinical effect, luring victims to invest in a joint venture in return for huge profits that never materialise.
The “fake electronic goods” scam is also employed by tricksters to exploit the victim’s greed. Victims are offered money to watch over goods on the street, which they are told are extremely valuable.
A second person appears and claims he wants to buy the goods at a higher price. A third person then persuades the victims to buy the items with the promise of a big profit.
Surprise, surprise, all the conmen disappear after the victim hands over money.
Police say these swindlers look for lone elderly people near banks or ATM machines, who have just withdrawn money.
An old favourite was the “dropped money” ploy where a “passer-by” agrees to split some money which they find lying on the ground at the same time as a victim.
Another person then arrives and accuses the passer-by of stealing the cash. They apparently decide to settle the matter at a police station and appear to give the victim the dropped money in a bag for safekeeping.
In return, the victim hands over valuables or other cash as collateral. The pair then disappear and the victim is left with a bag invariably containing only paper.
“Help! I need your phone/money” was another common street con trick in the city. In this scam, the culprit poses as a tourist in distress and asks to borrow money or a mobile phone from the victim, leaving them a false contact number or just running off with the phone.
How to avoid becoming a victim
- Understand that law enforcement agents in mainland China will never request money or bank information to prove innocence, as some scammers have claimed. They will also not issue arrest warrants via the internet.
- Contact the appropriate office to verify the identity of a caller if they claim to be a law enforcement agent or other official.
- Call police immediately if the caller claims to have kidnapped your children, other relatives or friends.
- Treat any such claims with scepticism, but call your children, relatives or friends to verify they are alright.
- Remind elderly or isolated people about the danger of scams, especially those who don’t often read newspapers or watch television.
- Transfer money to strangers’ bank accounts or place any cash in a public space.
- Disclose your bank account numbers or internet banking passwords.
- Disclose your personal information or the names of your children, relatives or friends.
- Safeguard personal data, including access to personal and commercial email accounts, to prevent it being stolen or compromised.
- Set strong passwords and change them regularly.
- Use anti-virus software to scan attachments before opening them.
- Use genuine software.
- Install and turn on a firewall and intrusion detection system.
- Keep software updated.
- Open emails of dubious origin.
- Download suspicious attachments.
- Use computers in public places to access personal email, use instant messaging software, do electronic banking or carry out other tasks that involve sensitive data.
- Be wary of strangers who approach you with some pretext.
- Discuss with your family members before making any decision to withdraw money from the bank or fetch cash or valuables from home.
- Buy Chinese medicine or related commodities from registered and reputable outlets.
- Call police if you think you need assistance.
- Buy medicine off the street.
- Purchase electronic components on the street, especially if the seller claims they are expensive or valuable.
- Buy goods you have not seen or whose value you are unfamiliar with.
- Lend money to anyone you don’t know, unless you have established his or her true identity and contact details.
- Trust strangers.