KUALA LUMPUR: A romance syndicate based here has duped 48 Hong Kong women and one elderly man out of HK$29.5 million (RM16 million) since January, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.
One woman lost HK$6 million to a con artist pretending to be a British engineer, while a 77-year-old man lost HK$4,500 to “an American woman” he met online.
Malaysian and Hong Kong police have busted the syndicate, with the arrest of 11 people here and in Hong Kong – four in Malaysia and seven in Hong Kong.
Malaysian police raided a flat and arrested two Nigerian men, a Nigerian woman and an Indian woman on Oct 24.
The SCMP quoted police as saying the gang was headed by one of the arrested Nigerian men, 33. They ran the scam out of a flat here. When police raided the flat, they found love messages on computers and mobile phones.
“They used different excuses to cheat, but they never met their victims in person,” a Hong Kong source told SCMP, adding that the gang had targeted more than 100 women in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.
In Hong Kong, the SCMP reported, police arrested five local women whose bank accounts were suspected to have been used to transfer the scammed cash to accounts in Malaysia and Taiwan.
It said they were being probed for money laundering and obtaining property by deception.
The SCMP quoted sources as saying the women were initially scam targets themselves but that when the con artists failed to get money from them, they used their accounts to filter the cash instead.
Two men were also arrested in Hong Kong in connection with the swindle.
The report said, earlier this year, when officers from Hong Kong’s cybersecurity and technology crime bureau noticed the scammed cash being transferred to bank accounts here, they contacted Malaysian police.
Romance scams involve criminals striking up online relationships with people under false pretences, often over several months. Once they have gained their victim’s trust, they make up a false reason to ask them for money.
“The three core members found targets through online dating platforms and used emails and instant phone messages to contact victims,” another source told the SCMP.
He said scammers usually pretended to be men from the UK or America, claiming to be professionals, businessmen, and soldiers among others.
The report said that a lawyer, a teacher and doctors were among the syndicate’s victims. Most of them were aged between 40 and 50.
The biggest loser, it said, was a senior executive at a Hong Kong company who was conned out of HK$6 million in nearly 20 transactions over six months.
“The scammer, disguised as an engineer from the UK, befriended her via an online dating platform in January,” one police source told the SCMP. “He claimed he ran into financial problems and needed money urgently and then borrowed money from the victim.”
The victim realised it was a scam after she lost contact with him in June.
So far, the probe has revealed that a 77-year-old was the only male victim of the scammers. After weeks of exchanging messages with what he thought was an American woman, the victim was lured into sending her HK$4,500 to buy a gift, according to police.
He too realised it was a scam when the messages dried up. Police said he was the oldest known victim of a romance scam, according to the report.
Last December, Hong Kong, Malaysian and Nigerian police jointly smashed another syndicate based in Malaysia. That group, headed by a Nigerian man and his Malaysian girlfriend, duped 73 Hong Kong women out of HK$58 million from 2014.