Hong Kong police worked with their counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore to bust an online romance scam ring that duped more than 140 people in the three locations out of HK$110 million (US$14 million), the force said on Friday.
A total of 52 people were arrested in a joint operation mounted in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore between last Thursday and Sunday. The syndicate hired translators and used translation software to communicate with victims via text messages in different languages, police said.
Investigations indicated the syndicate was headed by two African men, who were among the 22 suspects rounded up in Malaysia, according to senior superintendent Frank Law Yuet-wing. The ringleaders and a woman, who acted as a translator, were arrested in a residential flat.
A total of 28 suspects were arrested in Hong Kong by officers from the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau, while another two were caught in Singapore.
Three of the suspects caught in Malaysia are believed to have been responsible for laundering the swindled money, while another 16 were holders of bank accounts used to collect the funds and launder crime proceeds. Those arrested in Hong Kong and Singapore were also holders of such accounts, according to police.
Chief superintendent Joe Chan Tung of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau said the syndicate duped 147 people in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore out of HK$110 million in total.
"Police believe this operation has smashed a transnational syndicate running online love scams and targeting Asian people," Tung said. "This operation was also the result of the successful cooperation between Hong Kong police and overseas law enforcement agencies in the fight against online crime."
He said police would continue to work and exchange intelligence with their overseas counterparts.
About 101 of the victims, mostly women, were from Hong Kong. They were cheated out of HK$54 million, with the biggest victim losing HK$26.4 million. In Malaysia, 38 victims were cheated out of HK$53 million, while there were eight cases in Singapore involving HK$2.5 million.
Despite the success of the operation, the fraudster behind the city’s biggest individual romance scam case is believed to still be on the run. The victim, a 66-year-old businesswoman, was cheated out of HK$180 million over four years by an “engineer from Britain”, but investigations showed she was not a target of this transnational syndicate.
The city’s longest running scam involved a finance manager who lost HK$14 million to a con artist posing as a British film director. Their online relationship lasted eight years, and the victim never met him in person. She sought help from police in April.
According to Hong Kong police statistics, internet love scammers conned 463 Hongkongers out of a total of HK$398 million in the first nine months of this year. The number was a significant increase from the 142 victims in the same period last year, involving losses of HK$78.1 million.
There were 235 victims, who lost HK$109 million, in the whole of 2017. In 2016, there were 114 such reports involving HK$95 million, and in 2015, officers handled 52 reports, which saw swindlers bagging HK$32.4 million.
Scammers typically pose as entrepreneurs, professionals or military veterans, and befriend potential victims through internet platforms. After developing close relationships with their targets, they ask them to make money transfers under various pretexts. Police say the requests almost always involve needing money urgently to solve a problem overseas.