Hong Kong sees an explosion of scams posing as officials

Hong Kong is seeing an explosion in phone and internet scams where criminals pose as local or Chinese officials to demand money from victims, police said on Wednesday.

The spike comes as an economic downturn weighs on the city and authorities crack down on dissent after huge pro-democracy protests three years ago fueling fear of the administration.

To a briefing on Wednesday Police said 956 cases of phone scams were reported from January to July this year, a 60% year-on-year increase.

A total of HK$470 million ($60 million) was lost to scammers during the period.

There was an 87% increase in the number of scams involving people posing as public officials, which accounted for around 60% of all scams.

This scam method was by far the most lucrative, producing 90% of all losses.

“The usual tactics were to establish authority by pretending to be a government official or law enforcement official and demanding that the victims keep things to themselves in order to isolate them,” Woo Chin-pang told reporters. a police clinical psychologist.

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Although phone and internet scams have long been a problem in Hong Kong, the figures show how lucrative identity theft can be as the city rigorously enforces pandemic rules and looks more like the mainland. authoritarian of China.

In a video released by police, an unnamed female victim described how she received a call from someone claiming to be a public official who accused her of violating coronavirus restrictions.

“The caller could give me all my personal information, so I wasn’t skeptical,” she recalls.

She said she then had a video call with a man in uniform who claimed to be a security official in Guangdong – a Chinese province neighboring Hong Kong – who asked her for her bank details.

The biggest scam so far this year involved HK$65 million and was perpetrated by people claiming to be officials from Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office and China’s main prosecuting body.

Since many victims feel embarrassed by their experience, the actual number of cases would be much higher than the reported scams.

Hong Kong police say they don’t believe the cases involving the impersonation of officials are linked to so-called ‘pig butcher’ schemes in Southeast Asia that have become a scourge regional.

The international community has become increasingly alarmed in recent months about these scammers, who mainly operate in Cambodia and Myanmar. Victims were tricked into making bogus investments, usually in crypto wallets, which were eventually emptied.

Former insiders and investigators say some of those running the scams are themselves victims of human trafficking who thought they were responding to real overseas job offers.