This month, a 66-year-old woman in Hong Kong lost HK$180 million ($23 million) to a scammer posing as a British engineer on a local dating site. It was the biggest sum of money lost by an individual in Hong Kong ever to a romance scammer.
The woman, however, was just one of over 330 victims of romance deception in the first half of 2018, according to Hong Kong police figures—a more than 40% increase over the number of cases recorded in the whole of 2017, with over 90% of the victims (link in Chinese) women.
The amount of money swindled is also rapidly increasing. The average person scammed by fake lovers in Hong Kong lost about $64,000 on average in the first half of 2018, compared with $59,000 in 2017. At $21.6 million, the total amount of money swindled in the first six months of 2018 was 56% more than the entire amount lost in 2017. In May, a woman living in public housing lost $3.4 million to a man claiming to be a financial analyst in Malaysia. The woman borrowed huge sums of money from banks, friends, and family after she had exhausted her own savings to meet the man’s financial demands over a period of almost two years.
In the US, the FBI also warned last year of growing incidences of online-romance scams, but the average amount of money lost is far lower than in Hong Kong. The FBI said (pdf) there were 15,372 reported cases of confidence and romance fraud in 2017 with the amount conned totaling $211.4 million, about $13,800 per victim. In the UK, the National Fraud and Cyber Crime Reporting Centre said that 3,557 romance fraud cases were reported in 2017, the victims mostly being women, with losses totaling £41 million ($54 million), or £11,500 ($15,200) per victim.
The rapid growth in cases in Hong Kong led the police to establish an Anti-Deception Coordination Centre in July 2017 to combat fraud cases, which also encompass other scams such as those involving people posing as mainland Chinese officials or courier companies.
Like anywhere else, the victims of romance scams in Hong Kong are typically women in their 40s and above, and those who are, as the FBI warned, “emotionally vulnerable” like widows and divorcees. There’s another complication that may make women in Hong Kong more susceptible to such frauds—there are far more women than men, leaving many women desperate to meet a partner in a society where familial pressure for women to get married is still strong.
According to a promotional video (link in Chinese) produced by the Hong Kong police earlier this year, many of the romance frauds involve men posing as professionals from European or North American countries with jobs such as engineers, ship captains, servicemen, and managers in multinational corporations.
Many of the scammers, however, are actually Nigerian men based in Malaysia, many on student visas. Hong Kong and Malaysian police have busted a number of such crime syndicates in recent years. The fraudsters have also been duping women in Singapore, where such scams have also been increasing, and elsewhere in the world.