Victims of phone scams in Hong Kong lost HK$402 million from January to September, almost five times the total stolen in the whole of last year, according to police.
The largest sum of HK$20 million was lost by an 85-year-old widow tricked into handing over details of her bank account. She was unaware as the scammers cleaned out her savings over a three-month period.
The youngest victim, a 14-year-old teen, handed over HK$200,000 to a teenage girl who told him his parents were in trouble for money laundering in China. The 18-year-old was arrested after she tried to get more money from him.
A total of 895 people fell victim to phone scams during the first nine months of the year, a 130 per cent surge from 388 cases reported over the same period a year ago.
Scammers made off with about HK$300 million by pretending to be officials who accused their victims of breaking the law across the border before telling them to transfer funds to “clear their name”.
Just over half the victims fell for this ploy, the force’s Anti-deception Coordination Centre said. In other cases, the tricksters pretended to be long-lost friends or relatives needing small loans.
Victims lost between HK$200 and HK$20 million, with the total of HK$402 million far exceeding the HK$82 million scammed over the whole of last year.
Fraudsters had also begun using mobile applications to obtain their victims’ online banking passwords, identity card numbers and other personal details, police warned.
As of September, 46 people, all Hong Kong residents, have been arrested in relation to phone fraud crimes.
The 14-year-old teen was tricked in August, when a caller told him his parents were involved in money laundering crimes on the mainland and demanded money to “clear his family name”.
He knew that his parents, who ran their own businesses, kept about HK$200,000 in cash at home. He handed over the money three days later to a woman who met him pretending to be a “special agent”.
A few weeks later, when the woman pestered him for more, the boy asked his mother for money and she found out he had been tricked.
The mother told police, and the “special agent” turned out to be an 18-year-old who was arrested and is believed to be involved in four other fraud cases. The police found that the suspect had been a phone scam victim herself previously.
The boy’s mother managed to retrieve about HK$30,000, and the case is still being investigated.
The 85-year-old widow who lost HK$20 million was also duped when a trickster accused her of money laundering. Her late husband had a furniture business on the mainland.
The scammers convinced her to send them her personal online banking information and stole her money in four batches between April and June.
It was only when the bank sent her a text message in June, informing her that her balance was zero, that she realised what had happened.
Bonnie Ngan Hoi-ian, chief inspector of the Commercial Crime Bureau, said that four banking professionals aged between 24 and 27 were also among the victims this year.
The four were mainlanders who came to Hong Kong after completing their studies over the border. They lost a total of HK$15 million after receiving calls informing them their family members had committed crimes on the mainland.
“They weren’t aware of such phone scams because they tend to read international financial news rather than local media reports,” Ngan said.
Police also alerted the public to fraudsters’ use of dubious mobile apps with malware that redirected victims’ banking-related SMS verification codes to them.
Pretending to be law enforcers, the scammers told their prey to download the app and provide their banking details to enable the authorities to verify their money was not from money-laundering crimes. Scammers then used their data to hack or control their online banking accounts.
“Quite a lot of people have fallen victim, especially the elderly who are unfamiliar with such mobile apps or online banking,” said Ngan, of the Commercial Crime Bureau.
Police could not say how many people downloaded such apps.
In April, a scammer targeted a police officer. Tang Tak-yeung, a senior inspector with the public relations branch, received a pre-recorded voice call from a number which started with +852, indicating it was a Hong Kong caller.
The message informed him his phone service was being cancelled before he was diverted to a fake customer service line of a law enforcement agency, where he was accused of sending illegal SMS messages in China.
Using a sham law enforcement website supposedly in Guangzhou, the scammers issued bogus arrest warrants and writs to Tang via online chat and video calls over a six-day period.
The fraudsters sent him a voice message in Mandarin, telling him to buy a new phone and set up a new mobile account. They then sent a link and instructed him to download a suspicious app.
Tang said despite their best efforts, the police were unable to confirm if the scammers were in Hong Kong or the mainland, and were unable to make any arrests.
Police advised people not to answer calls with unknown caller IDs or numbers starting with +852, and to hang up immediately if they received a call with a pre-recorded voice message.
Hong Kong residents can call the Anti-scam Helpline at 18222 to reach the Anti-deception Coordination Centre for assistance about bogus calls, or call 999 if they become victims of a scam.
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