New romance-investment scam has taken Hongkongers for tens of millions

Police insiders have told the Post that online romance scammers are now earning big scores by luring victims into phoney investments.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Romance scams and bogus investment schemes, two of the most common online swindles, are being combined by international fraudsters in a new tactic that has duped Hongkongers out of tens of millions of dollars in just the past three months, the Post has learned.

Force insiders said the new ruse had allowed swindlers to milk each target for higher sums, prompting police to launch a publicity campaign over the weekend to remind the public to stay vigilant.

The emerging trend, which first came to the force’s attention in June, surfaced as new figures show the number of internet love scams jumped by nearly 54 per cent, to 601 cases, in the first eight months of this year, up from 391 in the same period last year.

The amount involved dipped slightly to HK$143.6 million (S$25 million) between January and August, from HK$149.6 million over the same period last year.

A police source said the force had dealt with 70 to 80 romance scams a month recently, with about a third of those cases also blending in investment fraud.

“Each victim lost an average of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the new ruse,” the source said, estimating the fraudsters had bagged tens of millions of dollars in the past three months.

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He pointed out that the amount of money cheated via traditional love scams varied greatly, but could often involve as little as HK$20,000.

Con artists behind internet love scams typically claim to be bankers, entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, pilots, military veterans or retirees as they befriend potential victims online.

After establishing a romantic relationship with their targets, they then invent different excuses to separate their “lovers” from their cash.

The scammers typically tell their victims they have suffered a business loss, had a traffic accident or urgently need handling fees to claim a large inheritance. Another popular technique is to claim an expensive gift has been detained at customs and needs a fee paid before it can be collected.

But in recent months, officers have noticed a fresh ruse, with fraudsters claiming to have made large amounts of money through shrewd investments, then convincing their online lovers to take part.

The victims are instructed to download a mobile phone app that shows prices for the investment products – mainly cryptocurrency – and the trading results of their investment accounts.

“However, the app only shows the rising prices of cyber currency and the profits of their investment accounts, because it was set up and controlled by the fraudsters,” another source said. “The positive results are designed to lure the victims into investing more money.”

The victim’s money is at no point involved in an actual investment, according to the source, but simply pocketed by the scammers.

He said the victims typically realise they have been scammed only after they attempt to withdraw money and find they cannot log onto the mobile app. Their “lovers” at this point simply disappear.

In all of the cases handled by police, the victims, mostly middle-aged women, never met the object of their affection in person.

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In the first eight months of this year, the force dealt with 10,534 reports of deception, up 101 per cent from 5,234 in the same period last year.

Police attributed the increase to the sharp rise in online shopping fraud.

The number of cases, including people being cheated while trying to buy masks early in the Covid-19 pandemic, more than tripled to 4,950 for the period, compared to 1,415 a year ago.

According to police, the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre blocked the transfer of about HK$2.3 billion connected to 580 deception cases and prevented victims in more than 180 such cases from sending money to fraudsters.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.