Hong Kong police arrest suspected fraudster after online shoppers wanting masks are duped out of HK$950,000

Clifford Lo

Hong Kong police have arrested a suspected member of a fraud syndicate who was accused of posing as a seller of surgical masks and duping more than 100 online shoppers out of HK$950,000 (US$122,502) in less than two weeks.

The 40-year-old man was one of the holders of bank accounts used to collect the money from 103 victims between January 27 and February 7, Senior Inspector Chan Man-ho said on Wednesday.

Chan said further arrests were possible as police tried to track down other account holders.

Mask scam in Hong Kong cons seven people out of HK$3 million

To find targets, the gang posted an advert on Facebook in late January, saying Japan-made surgical masks were for sale at HK$55 for a box of 50 pieces, and promised they would be available by mid-February.

At that time, a box of 50 masks was being sold for as much as HK$500 in the city, with residents desperately hunting for the protective gear amid the coronavirus outbreak.

A 40-year-old man was being held at Wan Chai Police Station in connection with the scam. Photo: Warton Li

Police said buyers were asked to pay in full before the delivery of the goods.

Many victims transferred money into the designated bank accounts controlled by the gang. They realised they had been conned when they did not receive the goods and the seller stopped answering messages.

“The amount of loss involved in each case ranged between HK$550 and HK$186,000,” Chan said.

Hong Kong is facing a shortage of masks, toilet paper and leadership

After learning the identities of some syndicate members, police arrested the 40-year-old in Chai Wan on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the suspect was being detained at Wan Chai Police Station for questioning and had not been charged.

Separately, two local women, aged 22 and 24, were arrested early on Wednesday on suspicion of cheating 30 online shoppers into buying surgical masks that were never delivered to them. The buyers fell victim to the scam between February 13 and 18 after responding to online adverts on the sale of masks.

According to police, the victims followed instructions on the media platform and made bank transfers. They realised they had been conned when they did not receive the goods and could not contact the sellers. Officers arrested the two suspects in Western district and Sha Tin and seized three mobile phones and a bank card.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the pair were still being held for questioning and had not been charged.

In Hong Kong, obtaining property by deception carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail.

Police urged the public to stay alert especially when shopping online. “If in doubt, call the anti-scam helpline on 18222,” a police spokesman said.

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