An online love scam in which a lawyer in the United States was duped out of more than US$2.6mil (RM10.98mil) has led to the arrest of a Hong Kong waitress on suspicion of money laundering.
A police investigation suggested that the 30-year-old woman was the holder of one of eight local bank accounts allegedly used to collect and launder the proceeds of the scam, a force insider said on Thursday.
“Most of the other seven account holders are believed to be mainlanders who are still at large,” the source said, adding that officers were still investigating whether the suspect was paid to hand over her account to be used by the scammers.
According to the force, the American lawyer, who lives in Michigan, befriended a woman on a dating app in November 2020 and was eventually tricked into making more than US$2.6mil (RM10.98mil) in bogus investments via two fake trading platforms.
Police said the victim transferred the funds into eight bank accounts in Hong Kong in the first quarter last year.
He later realised he had been duped when he found himself unable to access his accounts on the two platforms or contact his online lover. Hong Kong police launched an investigation after receiving a report from the victim.
The source said police had frozen about HK$630,000 (US$80,770 or RM340,293) in several bank accounts, including the one held by the waitress, in connection with the case.
The waitress, who was arrested on Monday, has since been released on bail pending further investigation. The scammer who originally deceived the victim, meanwhile, remains at large.
Hong Kong police handled 1,659 reports of online romance scams last year, up from 905 in 2020. The amount victims lost also rose from HK$212mil (RM114.51mil) in 2020 to HK$599mil (RM323.54mil) last year.
Since 2020, the cases have evolved from mainly romantic scams to ones involving investment fraud as well. The number of cases involving bogus investments shot up from 181 in 2020 to 642 last year, with victims reporting losses totalling more than HK$360mil (RM194.44mil).
According to police, the waitress was among three women who were arrested by police on Monday and Tuesday on suspicion of money laundering, an offence punishable by up to 14 years in jail and a HK$5mil (RM2.70mil) fine.
The other two women, aged 21 and 45, were linked to a separate phone scam in which a Hong Kong businessman living in Singapore was swindled out of more than HK$10mil (RM5.40mil) in September 2020.
Fraudsters posing as “officers from Beijing Public Security Bureau” had contacted the merchant and accused him of being involved in a money laundering case. He was instructed to transfer money into a designated bank account in Hong Kong for surety and investigative purposes.
The victim ultimately sought help from police after he lost contact with the “officers”.
According to police, the two suspects were also holders of bank accounts used to collect and launder the proceeds of the crime. In the operation, police froze HK$5.6mil (RM3.02mil) in the two women’s accounts.
Last year, police handled 1,140 reports of telephone fraud, with losses totalling HK$810mil (RM437.51mil). In 2020, there were 1,193 such cases, with scammers bagging HK$574mil (RM310.03mil). – South China Morning Post