More than 150 Hongkongers have been bilked out of HK$2.7 million (US$340,000) in WhatsApp scams this year, with creative fraudsters devising new ways to use the popular messaging service.
Police on Monday said that the amount of defrauded money was up 50 per cent from last year, even as the number of WhatsApp victims fell by more than 40 per cent. More than 250 Hongkongers were scammed on the message app in the first three months of 2017 for HK$1.8 million (US$229,390).
WhatsApp scams came to the attention of Hong Kong police in November 2017 when about 10 cases were reported – the number soaring to 30 the next month. In 2018, there were 592 cases with losses reaching HK$6.4 million.
The city’s police said con artists on WhatsApp, a 10-year-old company owned by Facebook, had invented ways to get more money from victims.
“In one of the tactics the scammers recently used, victims were lured into buying point cards for online games and promised that they would make a profit by selling them,” said Lau Ka-ho, the acting superintendent of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau.
In January, a 48-year-old Hong Kong man lost HK$430,848 through a point card scam, the biggest WhatsApp fraud case yet reported in the city.
In this case, a scammer hijacked the WhatsApp account of the man’s elder sister and used it to send him text messages urging him to buy points cards. Told he could make a profit by selling them, the man made more than 160 transactions in four hours.
Hong Kong police cited a trend of fraud victims losing larger amounts of money on WhatsApp. In the first three months of this year, victims lost between HK$513 and HK$430,848, according to police. Last year, WhatsApp victims lost from HK$128 to HK$307,200 over the same period.
The surge in the amount of scammed money prompted police on Monday to warn the public and urge WhatsApp users to set up a two-step verification process on their accounts.
With two-step verification, users must enter a personal identification number as well as the verification code to reset their accounts.
“The ultimate solution to prevent this kind of scam and to prevent WhatsApp accounts from being hijacked by others is to activate the two-step verification in the WhatsApp application,” Lau said.
Superintendent Tsang Nga-sze of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau said that if WhatsApp users enhanced their account security, fraudsters would find it harder to hack them and would stop trying.
According to police, swindlers often pretended to be friends or relatives of WhatsApp users and tricked them into revealing their codes and passwords. The con artists then accessed the accounts and, posing as the users, sent text messages to deceive the account holders’ contacts.
Users can buy credit to spend on the platform from convenience stores across the city. After getting passwords for the cards, scammers sold them online for profit.
The Post reported last year that police believed fraudsters from Taiwan were behind WhatsApp scams because the point cards they requested were used for the Taiwanese versions of online games.
According to police, no arrests had ever been made in relation to WhatsApp scams.
More from South China Morning Post: