While Hong Kong’s recent crime statistics on deception cases are on the rise, one noticeable trend is the increase in telephone scams, which keep thriving despite the government’s new policy of real-name registration of mobile phone SIM cards since March. This measure has raised public concerns about further curtailment of freedom and rights.
According to the Hong Kong police statistics, fraud and deception crimes have increased in recent years. In 2022, the number of deception cases increased significantly by 8,674 to 27 923 cases, registering a growth rate of 45.1 percent. The trend continues to flourish as the number of deception cases recorded in the first quarter of this year is 8,886, with an even higher increase percentage of 65.2 percent compared with the number in the same period of last year of 3,508.
Deception Cases Rise with a Noticeable Increase in Telephone Scams
Among all types of fraud, phone scams have seen a striking increase.
Police data show 2,831 telephone deception cases in 2022 involving HK$1 billion (US$128 million), a big jump from the 1,140 cases in 2021, representing a soaring rate of 1.48 folds. The trend has yet to indicate any obvious slackening signs. The number of cases recorded in the first quarter of this year is 597 involving HK$ 200 million (US$25.6 million), a surge of 76 percent compared with that in the same period of last year. However, it has dropped 48 percent against the previous quarter.
There are many different ways to scam someone on the phone. The most common one is the “Guess Who” game, in which a scammer pretends to be acquainted with the victim and asks the victim for money as he or she claims to be in trouble. According to the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre of the Commercial Crime Bureau (CCB), the “Guess Who” cases rose sharply early this year within a short period—from 84 cases in January to 233 cases in March, a jump of 2.7 times. Such a noticeable growing trend has already been in place for some time – the money amount involved in the “Guess Who” game was HK$27.5 million (US$3.52 million) in 2021, then skyrocketed to HK$114.1 million (US$14.6 million) last year.
‘Guess Who’ Game Is the Most Common Trick
CCB shared a case in an April press briefing. A man received a phone call from a scammer claiming that the man’s son had been arrested and needed a large amount of money for a solution. The man believed this and gave the scammer money and personal information, such as his ID card number, resulting in the loss of his entire life savings of HK$1.2 million (US$150,000).
Another common phone scam trick is a scammer posing as a government official to trick the victim into handing over a large sum of money. In one case cited by the CCB, a 69-year-old Mr. Hou received a phone call in August 2022 from a scammer claiming to be an official accusing him of money laundering in mainland China. Under pressure, Mr. Hou gave out his ID card and bank account number and eventually had his assets of HK$2.1 million (US$270,000) swindled away.
Real-Name Registration Launched to Combat Fraud and Other Crimes
To fight serious and organized crimes, including telephone scams, the government implemented the Real Name Registration Programme for mobile phone SIM cards on March 1. Pre-paid SIM card users must also give their name, date of birth, and ID card number information to the telecommunications operators for registration. Otherwise, the phone card will not function. Business firms using pre-paid SIM cards must also register with their business registration information. Signing contracts, including real-name registration at initiation and service renewal, is necessary for those taking up service plans with telecommunications operators.
In early 2021 when such a registration measure was first proposed with public consultation, the government mentioned the difficulty in combating serious and organized crime when many lawbreakers take advantage of the anonymity provided by mobile phone cards to engage in illegal acts. These unlawful acts include telephone deception, human smuggling, drug trafficking, syndicated burglary, technology crimes, terrorist activities, and immigration-related racketeering.
The then Under Secretary for Security, Sonny Au Chi-kwong said in early 2021 that 90 percent of the telephone deception cases were operated with anonymous phone cards, which had posed additional challenges to a police investigation.
However, the real-name registration measure has been causing concern about possible suppression of civic activities and thus undermining freedoms and rights. A similar measure adopted in mainland China in 2010 has been criticized by human rights groups as being used to monitor its people.
The proposal for the measure in Hong Kong came in early 2021 in response to the Extradition Law Amendment Bill in 2019 protests. During the demonstrations, many protesters used anonymous pre-paid SIM cards for their phones to communicate with other activists to avoid being monitored by the police.
Phone Scams Continue After Introduction of Phone-card Real Name Registration
Four months have passed since the real-name registration for phone cards was implemented in March, and there has not been a lessening trend in telephone fraud so far. Although no formal statistics on the number of telephone deception cases were collected to reveal the situation, some observations suggest that telephone scams continue to flourish.
According to Hong Kong’s online platform for intercepting suspicious phone calls, “HKJunkCall,” there has been a growing number of problematic phone calls, at least within recent weeks.
Radio Free Asia reported on July 10, that the number of suspicious phone calls recorded by “HKJunkCall” exceeded 100 cases within four hours on that day. Three days later, on July 13, The Epoch Times saw the recorded suspicious phone calls on “HKJunkCall” rising to 100 within a three-hour period. The Epoch Times tracked it again on July 17 and found that the intensity had escalated—just over 100 phone scams were recorded within one hour, which continued throughout the afternoon.
These phone scams use a variety of deceptive claims, including pretending to be officials from the Immigration Department, the Customs and Excise Department, the Consumer Council or the Consumption Voucher Authority, or even the names of private companies to lure the victims into following instructions related to money fraud.
Police Operations Having Sucess Against Fraud and Money Laundering
Faced with an ever-increasing number of fraud and deception cases, the police have taken numerous measures, some of which have been effective. The police reported in 2022 that its Anti-Deception Coordination Center (ADCC) intercepted over HK$1.3 billion (US$170 million) in payments, prevented money transfers to fraudsters in over 500 fraud cases, and arrested about 1,300 people for fraud.
The police set up a working group with the Office of the Communications Authority and major mobile network operators in September 2022 to combat phone scams, by helping residents filter and block suspicious incoming calls.
During this year, the police announced the results of operations launched territory-wide or in certain districts to combat fraud, money laundering, and deceit in the past year and a half, leading to dozens of suspects arrested involving thousands of millions of Hong Kong dollars.