Local and Malaysian police have busted a Kuala Lumpur-based syndicate that they say duped 48 Hong Kong women and one elderly man out of HK$29.5 million since January in online romance scams.
One victim lost HK$6 million to a con artist pretending to be a British engineer.
The alleged ringleader of the transnational racket was among two Nigerian men, a Nigerian woman and an Indian woman picked up during a raid on their operational centre in the Malaysian capital on October 24.
And in Hong Kong, police arrested five local women whose bank accounts were suspected to have been used to transfer the scammed cash to accounts in Malaysia and Taiwan. They were arrested for money laundering and obtaining property by deception, and released on bail pending further investigation.
Sources said the women were initially scam targets themselves. But when the con artists failed to get money from them, they used their accounts to filter the cash instead. Police were looking into whether the women knew the money was criminal proceeds.
Two men were also arrested in the city in connection with the swindle.
Romance scams involve criminals striking up online relationships with people under false pretences, often over several months. Once they have gained their victim’s trust, they make up a false reason to ask them for money.
Scams of this kind snared 142 people in the city in the first nine months of this year, netting HK$78 million, according to police figures. That is almost 100 per cent up on the 72 cases in the same period last year, which netted HK$57 million.
A lawyer, teacher and doctors were understood to have been among the Kuala Lumpur syndicate’s victims, who were mostly aged between 40 and 50.
The biggest loser was a senior executive at a local company, who was conned out of HK$6 million in nearly 20 transactions over six months.
“The scammer, disguised as an engineer from the UK, befriended her via an online dating platform in January,” one police source said. “He claimed he ran into financial problems and needed money urgently and then borrowed money from the victim.”
The victim realised it was a scam after she lost contact with him in June.
A 77-year-old man lost HK$4,500 to a similar scam.
After weeks of exchanging messages with what he thought was an American woman, the victim was lured into sending her HK$4,500 to buy a gift, according to police. He too realised it was a scam when the messages dried up. Officers said he was the oldest known victim of a romance scam.
According to police, the gang was headed by one of the arrested Nigerian men, 33, working with his two compatriots, 29 and 38, and the Indian woman. They ran the scams out of a flat in Kuala Lumpur.
During the raid on the flat, officers found love messages on computers and mobile phones.
Officers from Hong Kong’s cybersecurity and technology crime bureau sought help from Malaysian police to investigate the syndicate earlier this year after signs that some of the scammed cash was transferred to bank accounts in the country.
“The three core members found targets through online dating platforms and used emails and instant phone messages to contact victims,” another source said.
He said scammers usually pretended to be men from the UK or America, claiming to be professionals, businessmen, soldiers or retired.
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“They used different excuses to cheat, but they never met their victims in person,” the source said, adding that the gang targeted more than 100 women in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.
Police believed the gang had been in operation since January.
That would be soon after Hong Kong, Malaysian and Nigerian police jointly smashed another syndicate based in Malaysia in December 2016. That group, headed by a Nigerian man and his Malaysian girlfriend, duped 73 Hong Kong women out of HK$58 million from 2014.
Chief Inspector Hui Yee-wai of the cybersecurity and technology crime bureau said the prevalence of social media and the increasing number of online dating platforms were partly behind the surge in the number of romance scams on the web.
She warned online love-seekers that “people you meet online might not be who you think they are,” and urged them to make sure to keep an eye on their privacy settings.