A wealthy elderly woman in Hong Kong was bamboozled out of $32 million by scammers pretending to be Chinese government officials in what is being called the region’s most daring phone scam on record, reports say.
The 90-year-old woman, who lives in a mansion in a wealthy neighborhood called The Peak, was earmarked for the scheme last summer by swindlers who told her they were public security officials, according to the South China Morning Post.
The victim said the crooks told her that her identity was being used in a criminal case in mainland China.
“She was told her identity was used in a serious criminal case,” a source in the local police reported to the outlet. “She was then instructed to transfer her money to designated bank accounts to investigate whether the cash was the proceeds of crime.”
The police source confirmed that the target of the scheme “was promised that all the money would be given back to her after the investigation.”
A 19-year-old college student is said to have then appeared at the woman’s residence before handing her a cellphone to speak with the head-huckster, the source said to the Morning Post.
She followed the instructions and transferred the large sum, broken into 11 transactions going to three accounts between August 2020 and January 2021, police said to the outlet.
The 19-year-old suspected charlatan was said to have even accompanied the old woman to a bank to complete one of the transactions.
Authorities allege the plot was uncovered after five months when the victim’s domestic aid suspected that something questionable was happening and reached out to her employer’s daughter, who then contacted the police, according to Agence France-Presse.
Police from the Kowloon East regional crime unit apprehended the 19-year-old suspected grifter last month and ordered the woman’s bank accounts, holding over $1 million, to be frozen, the South China Morning Post reported.
However, the phone scammers made their getaway with the remaining millions.
Hong Kong is the home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of billionaires, many of them seniors, making them a susceptible target to such lucrative deceptions.
Phone scams have grown in frequency in Hong Kong since the start of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Reports of phone fraud are said to have spiked 18 percent in the first quarter of 2021, with scammers making off with some $45 million during that time, according to AFP.
Last year, police looked into 1,193 cases of phone scams where the hustlers made off with millions. Telephone fraud is considered a trans-jurisdictional crime and culprits are said to usually make their calls from outside Hong Kong, police say.
In 2020, a 65-year-old woman was conned out of $10 million after a similar ruse where the scammers pretended to be mainland security officials, the news outlet reported.
The chief inspector of regional crime, Mok Tsz-wai, confirmed in a news conference last week that pretending to be authority figures is a common ploy, accounting for over half of all reported phone scams in Hong Kong and being a major factor to 90 percent of the targets’ financial losses.
The targets of the scams often say they are baited into proving their innocence and end up voluntarily cooperating with their confidence men in an attempt to clear their names, Ng Ka-lee, a senior inspector of regional crime, explained at the same press conference.
The crooks usually ask to “verify” the identities of their victims by requesting basic information. With impending fear of being arrested and jailed, victims often willingly give up their personal information and the private details of their finances.
Some of the phone conmen even bring bogus court documents or bank account statements, typically from the mainland or overseas, and recruit unwitting associates to collect the money from the targets in person or to escort them to banks to make illegal transfers.