Fraudsters have managed to con 2,506 Hong Kong residents out of HK$705 million in the first nine months of this year despite mobile operators sending out more than 117,000 alerts a day warning people to watch out for scams.
About nine people were duped over the phone every day between January and September. The latest official data showed 278 monthly cases during the period, up from 235 last year and 95 in 2021.
Police confirmed a surge in the number of “guess who I am” phone scams, with 1,822 cases in the first nine months, well above the 1,540 reports for the whole of last year.
In these scams, the fraudsters call their victims, pretend to be a family member in distress and ask for money.
Last month, a 71-year-old retired woman reported that she lost her entire savings of HK$3.3 million after receiving a call from someone pretending to be her son.
The scammer claimed he had been arrested over a fight that left another person injured. The woman fell for it, believing it was her son who needed money for bail and to compensate the injured person.
In a written reply to lawmaker Chow Man-kong on Wednesday last week, security chief Chris Tang Ping-keung said that between May and September the city’s telecommunications operators had sent out 18 million voice or text alerts – an average of 117,647 a day – to warn phone users about potential scammers.
Those receiving incoming calls from outside the city with the prefix “+852” to appear as local numbers were sent alerts saying: “Call is from outside Hong Kong. Beware of deception.”
These efforts are part of a wider push by the authorities to deter fraud over the phone.
Police recorded a 52.5 per cent increase in all types of deception in the first nine months of the year compared with the same period in 2022, with cases rising from 19,444 to 29,650 and the total lost increasing from HK$3.38 billion to HK$4.99 billion.
Online shopping fraud was the largest single group of cases, accounting for 24.1 per cent, while phone scams made up 8.5 per cent.
Among phone scams, the “guess who I am” tactic is one of three common tricks, the others being bogus kidnappings and fraudsters pretending to be officials.
In the bogus kidnapping scams, fraudsters claim that someone close to the victim has been kidnapped and demand a ransom.
In the third trick, scammers pretending to be mainland Chinese officials accuse their victims of breaking the law before demanding cash or their bank details.
The tricks were not new, but people still fell for them.
A police source said he did not foresee such phone scams ending any time soon, as telephone deception syndicates changed tactics constantly to avoid detection.
“Intelligence shows ringleaders and key figures behind phone scams are not based in the city,” the insider said.
Those arrested in the city were mainly the people whose bank accounts were used to collect money from victims and owners of registered SIM cards that were used to contact targets.
Another source said he believed some syndicates used SIM cards registered in Hong Kong to contact victims, so telecom operators could not detect or send out alerts on such calls.
Since the end of March this year, telecoms companies detecting non-local fraudulent calls successfully intercepted more than 1.4 million suspicious incoming calls.
These were disguised as local phone numbers with the prefix “+852”.
In the latest scam alert on Thursday last week, the force said some people had received pre-recorded calls purportedly from staff of Kwong Wah Hospital and the Chinese University of Hong Kong Medical Centre, requesting personal information.
In a Facebook post, police advised people to stay vigilant and not disclose their information to callers they did not know.
The force said it had set up a working group with the Office of the Communications Authority and mobile network operators in September last year to coordinate ways to deal with telephone and online deception.
The group is also working to improve cooperation in anti-scam publicity and education, to spread its warnings more comprehensively.