With its low crime rate, Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world. Yet, the number of telephone scams has recently increased tremendously — in the last seven months, Hong Kong police have received 2,371 scam reports, which involved HK $175 million dollars (US $22.6 million dollars).
The exact number of telephone scams is probably higher than that figure, as more than 90% of those who received the scam calls do not bother to report them to the police, according to a local survey. The survey estimated that about half of Hong Kong residents had received scam calls from mainland Chinese and about 5% were conned.
In most of the calls, the scammers claimed to be working for some official-sounding organization. They recited the victim’ personal data including ID card numbers and addresses and told them that they had become fugitives in mainland China. They then redirected the calls to someone posing as mainland Chinese law enforcement to confirm the “wanted notice.”
The “law enforcement officer” explained to the victim that it's possible that thieves stole their identity to commit crimes, but the case could not be cleared without a proper investigation. Then the scammers suggested that if they wanted the “wanted notice” erased, they would have to pay a certain amount of money. The scammers then asked the victim to transfer the money to a mainland Chinese bank.
The most recent case involved a famous Erhu musician Wong Kuo Tong and his wife. Together they lost HK$ 20 millions to the scammers. Wong said that he and his wife received a call from the “Hong Kong Post Office” which explained that they had a piece of mail held up by the mainland Chinese Public Security Bureau. The call was redirected to a mainland Chinese “police officer and prosecutor” who said they had evidence of Wong and his wife's abusive use of charity funds. In the process of investigation, the scammers said, the couple would have to pay an amount similar to bail to prove themselves innocent.
Aside from the post office, the scammers also pretended to be delivery services, banks and even the China Liaison Office. Last month, a few dozen people received scam calls coming from “the China Liaison Office” which accused the victims of money laundering. The victims were threatened that they would be arrested once they crossed the border unless they paid. One of the victims lost HK $3 million.
Scam victims come from all walks of life, including retirees, housewives, business people, CEOs, university professors, medical doctors and students. Many are wondering why scams like these are finding success. What kind of social psychology is at play?
Sam Ng, a current affairs commenter, talked about his encounter with the phone scammers. He theorized that because mainland China has a reputation for corruption, victims didn't have a hard time believing that authorities would demand payment to clear charges:
尤其有大陸背景的香港人，習慣服從權威 […] 大陸公安局、法院、檢察院，這類公檢法專政機關，一般人都知道惹上會周身蟻，一旦被釘上，後果堪虞，希望盡快解決。
Most of the victims could communicate in Mandarin, which means that they probably had some social or business connection with mainland China. I pretended that I could not understand Mandarin and the scammers hung up.
If one travels to mainland China frequently, either for business or to see friends or be tourists, even if you just buy from [online shopping website] Taobao, they run the risk of crossing the legal line. If the scammers claimed that they have fake passports, or their packages contained illegal items, even if the victims did not commit the crimes, they would be confused.
In that country, anything could happen. Your personal information could be stolen or someone could use your identity to commit crimes. All these are possible and you will feel anxious and want to prove yourself innocent.
If the victims are originally from mainland China, they are so used to obeying the authorities […] They know that once the police, prosecutors or law enforcement bodies pin down someone, they are doomed and want to solve the problem as soon as possible.
China is full of corruption. People believe that problems can be solved with money. If the scammers said the case could be settled by cash, those with mainland Chinese experience would believe that firmly.