And Finally

Smooth operators

Why mainland scammers are ringing Hongkongers off the hook

Scam w

An anxious moment?

The Liaison Office of Beijing is the rather innocuous name used by the Chinese Communist Party for its Hong Kong headquarters. It says that one of its key mission is to convey the views of the people of Hong Kong back to policymakers in the nation’s capital. Yet aside from the occasional demonstration on its doorstep, little interaction with the public has been apparent over the years. This situation seems to have changed. The number of local calls to the Liaison Office surged from virtually zero to more than 10,000 in the last two weeks of July alone.

Why the sudden deluge in dialling? Anxious Hong Kong residents have been verifying whether the mainland authorities are really investigating them for wrongdoing, after receiving a series of calls from people posing as members of the Liaison Office. In these conversations fraudsters have been tricking victims into wiring money to mainland bank accounts in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

According to the China Daily, 923 complaints about these scams were received by the city’s police in the last six weeks and con artists have swindled HK$170 million ($22 million) out of the territory’s more gullible residents.

These include renowned 73 year-old Chinese soprano Li Yuanrong, who was duped out of HK$22.8 million in the biggest single scam. Fake investigators rang Li warning of “the biggest fraud case since 1949” in which her husband was allegedly implicated. She then wired money to various banks, seeking a “guarantee of innocence”.

The Bastille Post – an unlikely name for a recently-launched website in Hong Kong – has suggested that large-scale gangs are behind the sting. “It’s possible that the cold calls are from a call centre based in Guangdong, with several hundred or even thousands of conmen dialling all day,” it said.

(A Beijing spokesman claimed this week the gang is Taiwanese led.)

One internet commentator said that the conmen think that Hongkongers are “too simple, sometimes naïve, and easy to be manipulated”. But another countered that the fraudsters could be exploiting some sensitive areas with some of their potential victims. “If you don’t have any dirty dealings on the mainland, why are you afraid of getting calls from the Liaison Office?” he asked.

“Can you rule out the possibility that some victims have actually been laundering money for mainland bosses?” another added.

Police say that elderly women with relatives working across the border in mainland China have been simplest to dupe. But nevertheless, the willingness of some to pay up may well point to a few guilty consciences. And ironically, had it not been for the severity and scale of President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, the fraudsters may not have enjoyed such easy pickings.

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