Hong Kong police made five arrests on Tuesday as they busted a “compensated dating” service that cheated 10 men and a 13-year-old boy out of HK$2.8 million (US$360,000) with offers of companionship or sex.
The biggest victim in monetary terms lost HK$993,000 after a con artist posing as a model befriended him on social media, then suggested a compensated dating relationship – a disguised form of prostitution in which clients pay for companionship and often sex.
He was first targeted by the syndicate via social media in July, according to police.
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“The victim was talked into paying a deposit before the meet-up,” Chief Inspector Tai Tze-bun of the cybersecurity and technology crime bureau said.
After that, the man was repeatedly asked for more money using a variety of excuses before he realised it was a scam.
According to a police source, the youngest victim was a 13-year-old boy who was cheated out of HK$1,000.
Officers began investigating the syndicate after noticing a rise in the number of compensated dating scams in recent years.
In 2020, police handled 858 such cases, up 12.7 per cent from 761 the previous year. The amount of money involved also jumped by 8.1 per cent to HK$32 million in 2020 from HK$29.6 million in 2019.
According to the force, the syndicate targeted in operation “Topshield” had been in existence since 2019, and its members used online platforms such as dating apps to find their targets.
They then switched their conversations with victims to mobile instant-messaging apps, where they induced them to pay in advance before the meet-ups.
They were typically instructed to buy point cards for online games, pay in virtual currency, or make a transfer to bank accounts controlled by the syndicate.
Tai said fraudsters also coaxed some of the victims into revealing personal information that could then be used to extort them.
He said the investigation showed the syndicate bagged HK$2.8 million in 11 cases between October 2019 and November 2020.
After identifying members of the gang, officers arrested five men aged 22 to 57 in a series of raids on Tuesday.
The suspects were arrested on suspicion of money laundering and obtaining property by deception. The investigation was ongoing, according to police, and further arrests were possible.
As of Wednesday afternoon, three suspects were still being held for questioning and two others had been released, pending further investigation.
According to the force, 97 per cent of those who fell victim to compensated dating scams in 2020 were male. Of them, 15 per cent were between 10 and 19 years old, while 51 per cent were between 20 and 29.