The number of technology-based crimes in Hong Kong doubled to more than 6,400 in the first half of the year, with monetary losses totalling some HK$1.52 billion (US$196 million), as working from home amid the coronavirus pandemic made remote employees “vulnerable” to online criminals, police have said.
The dramatic rise in cybercrime, which ensnared victims as young as 12 years old, was fuelled by e-shopping fraud, online romance scams and extortion arising from racy video chats on the internet, according to Superintendent Terry Cheung Tin-lok of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau.
The city recorded a 273 per cent increase in the number of online shopping scams, with 4,046 cases in the first six months of this year, up from 1,084 cases in the same period last year. The amount of money involved surged 567 per cent, up to HK$88.8 million from HK$13.3 million in the first half of 2019.
Cheung said the massive uptick could be attributed to a new type of fraud: surgical mask scams, which took off as the coronavirus crisis gripped the city early this year and Hongkongers were desperate to protect themselves.
He said police handled 2,292 separate mask scams involving financial losses totalling HK$70 million. The biggest case centred on a clinic that was duped by fraudsters posing as an overseas mask supplier into transferring HK$20 million to 14 bank accounts in the United States, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Turkey.
Cases of “sextortion”, meanwhile, in which victims were blackmailed over recordings of steamy online video chats with crooks overseas, rose nearly 130 per cent, to 206, in the first six months of this year. The amount involved also surged to HK$1.3 million from HK$400,000.
The superintendent said more than 95 per cent of victims were men, and about 40 per cent were students. The youngest was a 12-year-old boy who lost more than HK$1,000, while the biggest loser was conned out of HK$190,000.
The 12-year-old, a Primary Six student, was the youngest victim of “sextortion” in five years, according to police.
In May, he got to know the scammer via an instant messaging application and was lured into a naked online video chat that was recorded without his knowledge. The fraudster then blackmailed him, threatening to circulate the video online if he did not pay.
The boy was instructed to spend more than HK$1,000 on point cards for online games, then give the passwords for the cards to the swindler. The case came to light when he told his father and a report was filed to police.
The crime typically involves extortionists – mostly female – taking off their clothes in front of their webcams to entice victims into doing the same. They then secretly record their victims and threaten to circulate it online or distribute it to targets’ relatives or friends if the victims refuse to pay.
The third type of cybercrime fuelling this year’s spike was internet love scams. Between January and June, police handled 429 such incidents in which swindlers bagged nearly HK$109 million. The case tally represented a 52 per cent increase over the first six months of 2019, but the amount involved dropped by 10 per cent.
Superintendent Cheung said officers handled a total of 6,414 reports of cybercrime from January through June, up 107 per cent from 3,088 cases in the same period last year. The amount involved also rose nearly 17 per cent, to HK$1.52 billion.
He said the surge was in line with a trend of increasing cybercrime worldwide.
According to the force, the 6,414 cases recorded this year also constituted the highest half-year figure in a decade.
This year’s largest case so far involved a US branch of a Japanese bank that was tricked into transferring HK$314 million into five Hong Kong bank accounts in an email scam. It was one of the 332 cases of commercial email fraud recorded in the first six months of this year, with a total of HK$1.23 billion swindled. In the same period last year, there were 279 cases involving HK$1.12 billion.
Cheung also said the cybercrime spike was linked to the coronavirus pandemic, adding that cases were “increasing since more Hongkongers are working from home to fight the spread of Covid-19, leaving them vulnerable to cyber criminals”.
He pointed out that police found a large number of bogus websites that copied the designs of legitimate bank and government websites in an apparent bid to trick victims.
There were only four forged websites found between 2016 and 2019, but the figure exploded to 380 in the first eight months of this year.
“The bogus websites are designed to steal personal data from internet users for illegal use,” he warned.
During investigations, officers also discovered 116 social media accounts used by online shopping scammers.
This year, police have also noticed a pandemic-related increase in so-called phishing attacks, in which computers are infected with malware when users click on hyperlinks or open attachments in suspicious emails.
Fraudsters used eye-catching terms, such as “coronavirus”, to trick internet users into clicking the hyperlinks or attachments, according to Chief Inspector Ruby Chan Wai-see.
“Targets could be told in such emails they are infected with Covid-19 and needed to receive a test, and they are asked to click on an attached hyperlink for more information,” she said.
In July, Hong Kong police for the first time ever cracked down on local operations of an international phishing syndicate suspected to be responsible for stealing the personal data of 2 billion people worldwide. During the operation, five people were arrested.
Police admitted it was a challenge to investigate cybercrime as online criminals usually operated outside Hong Kong.
Cheung said police would continue to exchange intelligence and cooperate with mainland and overseas law enforcement agencies, analyse swindlers’ tricks, and take enforcement action to combat such illegal activities.
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