Hong Kong police intercept HK$6.3 billion scammed from victims of phone and internet swindles over three years

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Hong Kong police’s anti-fraud squad has intercepted more than HK$6.3 billion (US$813 million) conned from victims of phone and internet scams in the city and across the world since the centre was set up three years ago, according to latest figures.

The biggest “stop-payment” case involved an email fraud in which a company in the United States was duped into transferring US$60 million into a bank account in Hong Kong last month, police said on Thursday.

On June 4, a hacker successfully stole email information from the firm and then impersonated its senior executive, requesting the finance section to transfer the money into a Hong Kong bank account on June 11.

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A police spokesman said the company later realised it was a scam and filed a report to officers. “After receiving the request to stop the payment on June 13, the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre (ADCC) successfully intercepted all the money involved and returned the sum to the company,” he said.

The ADCC – established in July 2017 to pool police resources for tackling scams – thwarted 1,586 payments to con artists totalling HK$6.33 billion between its opening and June this year.

Some of the cash was frozen in bank accounts in Europe and the US with the help of Interpol and overseas law enforcement agencies, before it could be siphoned off to accounts controlled by international fraudsters, force insiders said.

Hongkongers lose HK$222 million in scams during Covid-19 crisis

The official statistics showed anti-fraud officers stopped HK$1.88 billion of swindled money in the first half of this year, when new coronavirus-related scams emerged exploiting the demand for surgical masks and targeting the government’s HK$10,000 handout scheme for Hongkongers.

The sum so far this year is 10 times the HK$178 million intercepted in the six-month period in 2017 after the unit was established. In 2019, the squad intercepted HK$3.03 billion, compared with HK$1.23 billion in 2018.

Anti-fraud officers also helped 679 callers to its 24-hour helpline, 18222, stopping them from falling victim to scams over the past three years, according to police. They have handled 65,824 calls since 2017.

Victims included those living outside Hong Kong lured into online romance scams and overseas companies cheated in email frauds. Hong Kong police were involved because the money was transferred to bank accounts in the city.

According to the force, scammers are becoming “more and more adept at capitalising on the latest developments in society”.

The Anti-Deception Coordination Centre in Hong Kong was set up in summer 2017 to focus police efforts on tackling fraud. Photo: Handout
The Anti-Deception Coordination Centre in Hong Kong was set up in summer 2017 to focus police efforts on tackling fraud. Photo: Handout

Police cited that some scammers had tricked Hongkongers into disclosing their personal and account details, under the pretext of helping them register for the government’s HK$10,000 handout scheme.

“In response to ever-evolving frauds, the ADCC has to constantly modify its strategies in the hope of nipping all scams in the bud,” police said in its bimonthly magazine OffBeat.

Early this year, a new fraud relating to surgical masks surfaced in the city at a time when Hongkongers were desperately trying to protect themselves from the coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19.

Police handled 2,183 reports of such scams worth HK$67.48 million over the first five months this year.

New anti-fraud squad freezes HK$99 million in scammers’ accounts

The biggest case of that type involved a clinic which was duped by fraudsters posing as surgical mask suppliers into transferring HK$20 million to 14 bank accounts in the US, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Turkey.

In an unprecedented operation to track down the money, the anti-fraud squad recovered HK$15 million by working with law enforcement agencies from the seven countries. The remaining HK$5 million was pocketed by swindlers.

Between January and May this year, police handled 274 cases of email frauds involving HK$1.14 billion.

This year also saw a significant rise in the number of phone scams and online romance deception.

Police intercept HK$3 billion conned from scam victims in 2019

Cases of phone scams rose 150 per cent to 532 in the first five months of this year. Police said more than HK$180 million was swindled, representing a 300 per cent year-on-year rise.

In the same period, police handled 351 cases of online romance scam in which swindlers bagged HK$98.4 million. Compared with the same period last year, the force said this year’s case tally rose nearly 54 per cent and the amount involved also increased by a quarter.

In Hong Kong, the number of deception cases dropped 1.9 per cent to 8,216 in 2019 from 8,372 in 2018, according to police.

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