The US branch of a Japanese bank has been tricked into transferring HK$310 million (US$40 million) into five Hong Kong bank accounts – one of the city’s biggest email scams of the year.
A force insider said officers from the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre managed to intercept nearly HK$240 million of the money before it was transferred out of the scammer-controlled bank accounts, but the international fraudsters still managed to bag about HK$70 million.
The sting was one of 139 reported cases of commercial email fraud in the first two months of the year. The cases involved nearly HK$700 million, more than double the HK$288 million from January and February 2019’s 113 cases.
The Japanese case came to light in January, when the bank made a report to Hong Kong police.
Scammers impersonating one of the bank’s customers had made the money transfer requests, according to one police source.
“Bank staff realised it was a scam when they contacted the genuine client,” the source said. The anti-fraud officers were then tasked with tracking down the money.
Email scammers typically gain access to a company’s sensitive information by embedding a virus inside an email, such as a job application with a résumé attached. Opening the document allows the virus to infect a company’s servers, giving crooks access to information about the business, its top executives and clients.
Scammers then use the information to impersonate their victims and order money transfers.
About 12 months ago, fraudsters impersonating a business partner of a Uruguayan investment firm tricked the company into transferring US$18 million into two bank accounts in Hong Kong.
The firm’s staff later realised it was a scam and reported it to police through a lawyer. City officers were able to freeze the money in the bank accounts before it was siphoned off.
Including the HK$250 million from the year’s largest case, officers from the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre have frozen HK$920 million tied to different deception cases through April 8.
The squad, set up in 2017 to pool police resources for tackling online scams, halted 1,174 payments worth more than HK$4.45 billion to international fraudsters between July 2017 and December 2019. About two-thirds of that amount was intercepted in 2019.
The victims, many of whom lived outside Hong Kong, were defrauded via a range of deceptions, including online romance scams, bogus investment schemes and phone scams. Local police became involved because the money was transferred to bank accounts in the city.
In Hong Kong, the number of deception cases skyrocketed 99 per cent to 2,475 in the first two months of 2020, up from 1,241 in the same period a year ago, according to police.
Obtaining property by deception carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail, while those convicted of money laundering face 14 years behind bars and a HK$5 million fine.