90-Year-Old Hong Kong Woman Robbed of $33 Million in Phone Scam


HONG KONG — The ominous phone calls began last summer.

The callers said they were investigators from mainland China. The wealthy 90-year-old Hong Kong woman on the other end was led to believe that she was the subject of a money-laundering investigation. Perhaps driven by an urge to clear her name, she began transferring huge amounts of money to bank accounts she did not own.

In the end, according to the Hong Kong police, the unidentified woman deposited a staggering sum — $32.8 million — into accounts controlled by grifters, in one of the worst phone scams to hit the Asian financial hub.

A 19-year-old university student, identified by his family name, Wong, was arrested in connection with the crime, the Hong Kong police said on Tuesday. He was held on suspicion of “obtaining property by deception” and released on bail. The police said the investigation was continuing and did not rule out further arrests.

Phone scams have jumped in Hong Kong since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The police recorded 1,193 cases in 2020 — a more than 80 percent increase from 2019. The schemes resulted in a cumulative loss of $20 million in 2019 and $73 million in 2020. In the first quarter of 2021, the Hong Kong police recorded about 200 phone scams and a total of $45 million in related financial losses.

One of the victims last year was a 65-year-old retiree who was robbed of $8.9 million by scammers who also impersonated mainland Chinese officials and accused her of money laundering. The police said last week that they had arrested three suspects.

Mok Tsz-wai, a chief inspector of regional crime, said at a news conference last week that impersonating authority figures is a common ruse, making up over half of all known phone scams in Hong Kong and contributing to 90 percent of victims’ financial losses.

The victims often feel compelled to prove their innocence and end up cooperating with their scammers in an effort to clear their names, Ng Ka-lee, a senior inspector of regional crime, said at the same news conference.

Swindlers usually seek to “verify” the identities of their victims by asking for basic information. Driven by fear of being arrested and imprisoned, victims often disclose their personal data and financial details.

To add credibility to their grift, some scammers create fake court documents or bank account statements, usually from the mainland or overseas, and recruit associates to collect money from the victims in person or to escort them to banks to make illicit transfers.

Not much has been publicly disclosed about the 90-year-old woman at the center of the latest Hong Kong scam, how she acquired her wealth or how she became a target. But she received a phone call in August from someone who claimed to be a government official, The South China Morning Post reported. Days later, the police said, a person claiming to be a Chinese police officer arrived at her home on Victoria Peak, the lofty realm of Hong Kong’s wealthy elite, to deliver a cellphone she was to use to communicate during the so-called investigation.

Over five months, the scammers unspooled instructions on transferring millions as part of the so-called investigation. She transferred her first million on Aug. 12, the police said. From Aug. 13 to Jan. 4, she deposited $31.8 million more into the scammers’ bank accounts.

The scheme began to collapse when a domestic helper grew suspicious and alerted the woman’s daughter, who persuaded her mother to make a police report in March, the police said. By then, nearly $33 million had vanished. It was unclear whether the woman will ever recover a dime.

Chief Inspector Mok said the elderly were among the most vulnerable targets of phone scammers. He called on the public to contact older relatives on a regular basis as a way to reduce such fraud.

“We hope everyone calls the elderly more frequently, not only to show that you care for them and to remind them not to fall for phone scams,” he said, “but to allow them to become more familiar with your voices and the types of words you use.”

Lennon Chang, a senior lecturer at Monash University in Australia and an expert in cybercrime in the greater China region, said elderly victims of such crimes were often plagued by feelings of shame. Sometimes they continue to follow the instructions of their swindlers, who often dangle promises to return the money, even if they begin to suspect that they are being deceived.

“They fear that if they tell other people, they will be criticized for being stupid,” he said in a phone interview. “They are afraid for being teased. They don’t want to be seen as falling into this kind of graft despite decades of life experience.”

It is important to remove the stigma of falling into such traps as a way to support the victims, convince them that they are victims and put a stop to their deception, Dr. Chang said.

“One thing we need to change to prevent this kind of scam: We should stop shaming the victims,” Dr. Chang said. “We should tell them it’s not their fault. It is the offenders that are too smart. They know how to manipulate.”



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