Hong Kong is seeing an explosion in telephone and internet scams where criminals pose as local or Chinese officials to demand victims hand over money, police said Wednesday.
The spike comes as an economic downturn weighs on the city and authorities crack down on dissent after huge democracy protests three years ago, fuelling a fear of officialdom.
At a briefing on Wednesday police said 956 phone scam cases were reported from January to July this year, a 60 percent increase year on year.
A total of HK$470 million ($60 million) was lost to con artists in the period.
There was an 87 percent rise in the number of ruses involving people impersonating officials, which accounted for around 60 percent of all the scams.
That method of conning was by far the most lucrative, producing 90 percent of all the losses.
“The usual tactics included establishing authority by claiming to be an official or law enforcer and demanding victims keep things to themselves in order to isolate them,” Woo Chin-pang, a police clinical psychologist, told reporters.
Though phone and internet scams have long been a problem in Hong Kong, the figures lay bare how impersonating officials can be lucrative as the city rigorously enforces pandemic rules and becomes more like the authoritarian Chinese mainland.
In a video played by police, an anonymous female victim described how she received a call from someone claiming to be an official who accused her of violating coronavirus restrictions.
“The caller could tell me all my personal information so I wasn’t sceptical,” she recalled.
She said she then had a video call with a uniformed man who claimed to be a security official in Guangdong — a Chinese province neighbouring Hong Kong — who demanded her bank log-in details.
The largest scam so far this year involved HK$65 million and was carried out by people claiming to be officials from Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong and China’s top prosecuting body.
Given that many victims feel embarrassed by their experience, the real number of cases is thought to be much higher than reported scams.
Hong Kong police said they did not believe cases involving the impersonation of officials were linked to so-called “pig butchering” ruses out of Southeast Asia that have become a regional scourge.
There has been growing international alarm in recent months over such swindlers, who mostly operate in Cambodia and Myanmar. Victims have been persuaded to make bogus investments, usually into crypto-wallets, which were ultimately emptied.
Former insiders and investigators say some of those running the scams are themselves victims of human trafficking who thought they were answering real job adverts overseas.