Hong Kong’s love scammers hit on a new way to rake in millions last
year by cutting down on the sweet talk while pushing their victims to
put money into fake investments, police have warned.
The confidence tricksters raked in HK$85 million (US$11 million) from 181 cases, accounting for a third of all reported investment scams last year.
Nine in 10 victims were women, but the biggest loser was a male piano teacher who told police he was duped out of HK$13.5 million by his “male lover” online.
Culprits used the familiar tricks of posing as good-looking men or women holding good jobs as they preyed online for lonely-hearted victims.
But unlike typical love scammers who engage in prolonged online chats as they romanced their victims, these con artists moved speedily to telling their victims about get-rich-quick investment opportunities, according to the force’s anti-deception coordination centre.
Victims were invited to visit a website or download fraudulent mobile applications to put their money into low-risk investments promising good returns.
The money never went to actual investments, but into fake online tools manipulated by the con artists to fool victims with fake account balances that showed profits piling up.
Some of the scammers transferred early “profits” to their victims’ bank accounts, to earn their trust and encourage them to invest even more.
As soon as the victims put in more, the romance cooled rapidly. Requests to collect profits were rejected, the victims never got their money back, and their “lovers” vanished.
“In the past, scammers spent much time developing a story and relationship with the victim. It was not cost effective. Now the culprits want to swindle more money sooner,” said Chief Inspector Chu Ming-lun of the cyber security and technology crime bureau.
“Victims might initially stay cautious about an online friend as they had heard of love scams. But once they experience an investment gain and can really withdraw money at the start, they easily fall into the trap.”
Early this month, 12 men and five women were arrested in a police swoop on a fraud syndicate believed to have duped 56 people out of HK$20 million over the past six months.
The gang recruited the women, who were taught how to lure their victims by chatting them up online before convincing them to make bogus investments, mostly in bullion or cryptocurrency.
The victims included a 61-year-old man who holds an Australian passport and runs a food company Hong Kong. He reported being duped of HK$12 million. Other victims included a Korean and Singaporean.
Chu said though the conversations and online tools were in Chinese, some of the fraudsters might have been operating from outside Hong Kong, including in Southeast Asia.
The piano teacher who reported losing the most last year was a man in his 40s who met his “male lover” through a dating app last August. The pair never met, but the teacher was lured into starting a trading account after just two weeks of sweet talk.
After reaping HK$6,000 from an early investment of HK$40,000, he went on to sink a total of HK$13.5 million in 16 transactions between August 20 and September 17.
He believed that he earned around HK$10 million in profits, but when he tried to cash out, he was told to fork out another HK$4.6 million as his account was found to have violated some regulations. Now suspicious, he reported to police.
Most of the victims only realised they were duped when their online lovers deserted them and could not be reached.
The overall number of crimes reported in Hong Kong last year rose by 6.8 per cent to 63,232 from the year before, while the total detection rate increased slightly to 37.8 per cent.
Among all crime categories, there was a significant rise in deception cases, which nearly doubled from 8,216 in 2019 to 15,553.
The number of reported investment frauds tripled from 167 in 2019 to 544 last year, with financial losses shooting up more than 5.5 times to HK$266.3 million. Police arrested 28 people involved in investment scams.
The number of reported love scams almost doubled to 905 cases last year, with victims being cheated of a total of HK$212.6 million. Some 89 people were arrested over involvement in love scams.
On Tuesday, Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung backed a government proposal to make SIM card registrations compulsory, saying it would help officers crack down on scams.
He said up to 80 per cent of con artists in the city hid their identity by using untraceable prepaid phone cards, making investigations difficult.