Police have busted a syndicate behind at least 30 online romance scams that saw foreign domestic helpers manipulated into opening 21 bank accounts for laundering HK$12 million with 14 arrests.
The 14 suspects, five non-local men, eight non-local women and one local woman aged 30 to 53, were arrested for money laundering and conspiracy to defraud in a two-day operation codenamed “Polestar” on June 16 and 17.
Among them are four Nigerian men – the mastermind and three core syndicate members, along with 10 bank account holders – including eight domestic helpers.
“Of the four Nigerian men, three are holders of Hong Kong ID cards, whereas one is in the city on a “going-out pass” [a recognizance form for overstayers],” the police said. “They were arrested in Tai Kok Tsui and Causeway Bay.”
Two of the Nigerian men were also found with debit cards belonging to some of the domestic helpers.
All suspects were released on bail pending investigation. They should report to the police in mid-July.
The scams were committed between last January and this month, during which two men and 28 women aged 22 to 64 – clerks, students, housewives and retirees among them – were cheated. One alleged female victim claimed to have lost as much as HK$2.4 million.
Commercial crime bureau senior inspector Tang Kwok-hin said members of the syndicate posed as professionals from Europe, north America or south Asia to approach victims via online dating platforms.”Scammers then lured them into depositing money into the bank accounts, saying the money was for emergencies such as paying export declaration fees,” he said.
Tang said syndicate members would then withdraw the sums within a short period of time.”The mastermind then transferred the money to the bank account of the syndicate’s company and then multiple local and overseas bank accounts to launder the money,” he said.
He said the syndicate would get domestic helpers to set up those accounts by offering them hundreds to thousands of Hong Kong dollars.
Bureau superintendent Lau Kai-pang said police seized HK$1.5 million in cash, phones, debit cards, SIM cards and authentication tools for bank passwords.
The first four months saw 517 online romance scams – a 93.6 percent rise from 267 in the corresponding period last year.
The 517 scams involved a total of HK$196 million – a 140 percent rise from the HK$81.5 million in the 267 scams recorded last year.