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Scams and swindles

Hong Kong police warn of fake Airbnb website used to con lodger out of HK$26,000

Anti-fraud police have dealt with more than 600 requests since last July to halt payments worth a total of HK$1.6 billion linked to online and telephone scams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 February, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 February, 2018, 11:28pm

Hong Kong police are urging vigilance against online fraudsters posing as landlords who cheat would-be lodgers out of money and steal their credit card information using a bogus Airbnb website.

The scam surfaced before Lunar New Year when one victim lost more than HK$26,000, the Post understands.

It prompted the police force’s anti-fraud squad to issue a scam alert on its website on Thursday.

The Anti-Deception Coordination Centre began operating on July 20 last year and has dealt with more than 600 requests to halt payments worth a total of HK$1.6 billion made as part of various online and telephone scams, the Post has learned.

“The team has frozen about HK$210 million in more than 140 successful cases before the money was transferred out of the scammers’ bank accounts,” a police source said.

The centre has also dealt with more than 14,000 calls to its 24-hour inquiry hotline and prevented 57 callers from falling for scams.

The latest con tactic came to the squad’s attention when police received several reports before Lunar New Year. The Post understands one victim lost more than HK$26,000 while other cases were unsuccessful.

“That victim was lured to transfer HK$19,000 as a rental deposit through a money exchange company after his credit card information was stolen through a bogus website,” a police source said.

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The swindlers used a bogus Airbnb website to steal the victim’s credit card information and make online purchases with it worth HK$7,000.

The victim later realised it was a scam when he could not contact the “landlord”. He then sought help from local police.

Con artists claiming to own vacant flats for lease posted adverts on at least two websites to find targets, and then contacted the victims via email or WhatsApp, according to police.

“Swindlers would claim they were out of town and unable to allow inspection of the flat,” police said.

“Then they would provide a bogus website and ask victims to make an advance payment with a credit card. By doing so, the swindlers could steal credit card information to make illicit transactions.”

When these targets failed to complete the transaction on the fake website, the fraudsters would demand they pay a deposit through a bank or money exchange shop before delivery of the room keys and rental agreement.

Police said the victims usually realised it was a scam when they found no transaction had been made with the official rental website.

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Another source said fraudsters advertised a property with a low rental rate and displayed photographs of a flat with nice decoration to lure victims.

To guard against such deception, police said renters should inspect a flat and sign a rental agreement in the presence of the landlord before paying any rent.

“Beware of fraudulent websites. The domain names of these sites are often similar to those of official websites. Please verify carefully,” police said.

“If in doubt call the anti-scam helpline immediately on 18222.”

According to official statistics, police handled 7,091 reports of deception last year, down 2.3 per cent on the figure for 2016.

Last month police commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said that despite a decline in the number of deception cases, there had been a rise in online business fraud in 2017, with 1,996 cases – 394 more than in 2016 – involving total losses of HK$34.5 million.