How Hong Kong phone scammers are trying to cash in on pandemic

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Telephone con artists are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by posing as health officials to find potential victims, Hong Kong police have warned.

The new ruse has prompted the force's Anti-Deception Coordination Centre to issue a scam alert.

The centre warned the public that the swindlers impersonated Department of Health workers, and told their victims that "there were some anomalies" regarding their health, before asking for their bank details in order to steal their money.

"Victims were requested to provide their names, [Hong Kong identity card] numbers and bank account details," the alert read.

According to police, the Department of Health has confirmed that only people it has served with quarantine orders will receive follow-up calls.

Its staff will request that quarantined people provide their name, share their real-time location, and conduct video calls to verify their location if necessary, but bank account details are not required.

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Previously, fraudsters posed as officers from law enforcement agencies - such as police, the Immigration Department or the Independent Commission Against Corruption - or employees from a courier or telecoms company.

Victims were usually accused of violating mainland laws and instructed by people pretending to be mainland officials to transfer money into a bank account as a surety during an "investigation", or give online banking details such as passwords.

In response to the latest scam, police urged the public not to disclose any personal data or bank account details.

"Remind your relatives and friends to stay alert against deception," the force said in the alert.

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"If in doubt, please call the government hotline on 5394 3150 for the identities of the staff or the Anti-Scam Helpline 18222 for advice."

Officers handled 648 reports of phone scams in 2019, involving total losses of HK$150 million (S$28 million). There were 615 phone scam cases in 2018, in which swindlers bagged HK$61 million in total.

The city's biggest telephone deception case involved a 52-year-old Yuen Long resident who made a police report in 2016 after being conned out of more than HK$58 million.

In Hong Kong, the total number of deception cases dropped 1.9 per cent to 8,216 in 2019, from 8,372 in the previous year.

The Anti-Deception Coordination Centre, set up in July 2017 to pool police resources to tackle scams, halted 1,174 payments of defrauded money totalling more than HK$4.45 billion to international fraudsters between July 2017 and December 2019.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.