New Hong Kong scams using bogus online customer service staff cheat people out of RM114mil in less than five months

Police say scam technique an ‘increasing trend’, with HK$4.16mil the biggest single loss logged. Officers warn of ‘new defrauding trick’ and appeal to people to be on alert and contact banks or stores if they have any doubts. — SCMP

Fraudsters posing as customer support staff at online service platforms have swindled Hongkongers out of about HK$190mil (RM114mil or US$24.3mil) since January, with police saying they have spotted an increase in cases.

Chief Inspector Wan Pui-yee, from the force’s Anti-Deception Coordination Centre, said officers had logged 583 cases of fraudulent customer support calls up to mid-May, with HK$4.16mil (RM2.50mil) the largest single loss.

“Police have noticed an increasing trend in the pretended customer services scam over the past few months,” she warned. “This is a new defrauding trick that we discovered.

“They claimed the victim had wrongly bought a chargeable service and, if the victim did not immediately follow the instructions to cancel the related service, they would be charged or their account would be frozen, as an excuse to coerce the victim into transferring funds and stealing their money.”

Police said the 468 cases reported between January and April, where victims were told they had bought “VIP membership” of online shopping sites, including mainland China’s Taobao and its spin-off Tmall.

Taobao Hong Kong at present has no premium membership scheme, but people can use the service on the mainland version.

A total loss to customer service scams of HK$157mil (RM94.49mil) was recorded for the first quarter of 2024.

Scammers in May started to pretend to be customer service staff at payment apps such as WeChat, Alibaba Group’s Alipay, and social media platforms like TikTok and Douyin, as well as telecommunication companies.

Alibaba owns Taobao, Tmall, Alipay and the South China Morning Post.

(From left) Chief Inspector Wan Pui-yee and Senior Inspector Kwok Lai-yi. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Police said victims of the scams were aged from 16 to 87, and half were between 40 and 60.

About 30% were older than 60. Almost 20% were retired and others included homemakers, professionals, students and the unemployed.

Their losses ranged from HK$1,000 (RM601) to HK$4.16mil (RM2.50mil), with more than 60% of victims being cheated of sums in excess of HK$100,000 (RM60,187).

A 69-year-old man, identified only by the pseudonym Ma, said he had been cheated out of HK$440,000 (RM264,828).

Ma got a call from the mainland claiming to be from a Tmall customer support worker who said he had applied for a five-year VIP membership with an annual fee of HK$400 (RM240).

He was told he had to visit a mediation centre within an hour to cancel the membership, or he would be hit with a bill for five years’ worth of fees.

Ma was unable to do so and got a video call from a man in a suit who claimed to be a bank official and who told him to disclose his bank account and credit card details.

The fraudster claimed Ma’s bank account would be blocked as the information he provided was incomplete.

The victim was asked to open and repeatedly transfer money to a virtual bank account to unlock his original one.

“After dozens of money transfers, I was close to a nervous breakdown,” Ma said. “I did not stop transferring money from 4pm to around midnight.

“The person kept saying it was unsuccessful and asked me to do it again and again.

“I was not given a chance to take a rest or stop for a while as he kept urging me to do so.”

Ma never got his money back, despite promises of refunds, and only realised he had been scammed when he got a letter from his bank a few days later.

Police said a 70-year-old woman, an insurance agent, was cheated in a similar scam.

She lost HK$4.16mil (RM2.50mil), including savings of HK$2.91mil (RM1.75mil) and a credit card overdraft of HK$1.25mil (RM752,347), in just one day in January.

The force said officers had arrested “some holders of bank accounts” linked to the scams and that more details would be released later.

Senior Inspector Kwok Lai-yi, also from the anti-deception centre, said scammers usually called victims at weekends so they could not easily ask for verification from their banks.

“They will also require the victims to conduct video calls for many hours on end, so that they can follow every action of the victims, making it difficult for them to calm down or seek help,” she said.

“In the beginning, they will ask the victims to transfer a small amount of money and immediately pay them back. As a result, the victims will lower their guard.”

Kwok added the criminals also used psychological tactics such as the imposition of a short time frame to comply, threats, and pretending to provide help to lead their victims into their traps.

She added some of the scammers looked “very professional” and presented a realistic-looking staff ID card to gain trust.

Scammers usually call victims at weekends so they cannot easily ask for verification from their banks Photo: Shutterstock

Wan appealed to the public to stay alert for similar calls and added that customer service staff did not normally ask customers to pay, refund or receive money through non-official platforms.

She added they also did not forward calls to victims’ banks or ask for account details.

Wan said bank officials would never ask customers to transfer money to prove that they are the holders of an account.

She urged people who suspected they had received a bogus call to visit a branch of their bank or the store involved to verify the identity of callers and should not trust people just because they showed what appeared to be a genuine staff ID card.

Chan Chi-kin, head of Tmall Taobao World for Hong Kong and Macau, condemned crooks who took advantage of people’s trust on the platform.

He said payments and refunds would normally be made through Taobao mobile apps. The company would only collect payment information in the app or through three official customer service numbers based in Hong Kong – 2571 8031, 2571 8089 and 3018 3610.

He added if people had any concerns about payment or refund processes they should contact legitimate customer services staff through the app. – South China Morning Post

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