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Online romance scammers cheat love-struck victims out of HK$30m

26 Jun 2016 10:32 AM | Anonymous

Online romance scammers cheat love-struck victims out of HK$30m

Scammers target lonely hearts, mostly women, after obtaining personal details from social networking sites and cultivating their trust

Friday, 26 June, 2015

Online romance scammers last year stole more than HK$30 million from love-struck victims who shared too much personal information on social networking websites, according to Hong Kong police.

In nearly 90 per cent of the 61 cases that happened from 2013 to March this year, the victims were female. And more than half of them were educated, white-collar workers and professionals.

While the age of the victims varied from 23 to 60, police said most were between 30 and 50.

In one case last year, a divorced woman who was about to retire from her professional job lost nearly HK$9 million to a fraudster who cultivated an online romance.

Confirming nine cases of online romance scams in the first three months of this year, Chief Inspector Tsang Chun-kit, of the commercial crime bureau, called the trend "alarming".

"This means fraudsters are getting more sophisticated in establishing relationships and trust," he said.

Tsang said the typical fake profile pictures used by the scammers were quite "plain-looking" so they would not alarm or make the victims suspicious.

Often posing as white male engineers working in Southeast Asia, the scammers usually conducted extensive research on their potential targets, who revealed too much personal information, such as hobbies and interests, on popular social networking sites.

Once they became knowledgeable about the victims, the scammers would try to befriend them and initiate a series of intimate conversations through emails in a grooming process that might last over a month.

As soon as the scammers felt they had gained the victims' full trust, they would invent excuses to ask them to send money to overseas bank accounts.

Police said the excuses were almost always about needing money to resolve a problem overseas or clearing custom charges for gifts the scammers said they were sending to their victims.

While these might sound implausible, the victims were often blinded by the relationship they had built in their virtual world.

Sean Lin, chief inspector of the cybersecurity and technology crime bureau, said tracing the criminals behind online dating scams was very difficult and so far police had made arrests only in Hong Kong in six cases using money laundering laws.

"When investigating, we target internet service providers," Lin said. "But since there are no laws compelling them to keep communication records for a longer period of time, it makes [the scammers] difficult to track."

To avoid being duped by online dating scams, Lin advised people to refrain from revealing too much of themselves on social media and to set their privacy settings to a high level.

In Hong Kong, the overall crime figure dropped to a 10-year low in 2013, but technology crimes, fuelled by online fraud, surged 70 per cent. Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo Wai-chung made fighting cybercrime one of his priorities when he took office last month.

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