Hong Kong, Malaysian and Nigerian authorities smash online romance syndicate that swindled $60m from women
The transnational racket, based in Malaysia and headed by a 36-year-old Nigerian man and his 46-year-old Malaysian lover, had allegedly duped 73 Hong Kong women out of HK$58 million since 2014, according to Hong Kong police. The gang also cheated 13 Malaysian women out of HK$2 million.
The biggest loser was a middle-aged professional from Hong Kong who was conned out of HK$9.1 million before she reported the case to police earlier this year, according to Superintendent Lam Cheuk-ho of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau.
The woman came to know her scammer through an online dating
platform last summer, but nine months had passed before she realised she had been cheated and sought police help in April.
It was gathered her money was laundered by the crooks through more than 10 bank accounts in Malaysia and Nigeria before police lost track of the money.
The Nigerian man and his lover were among 13 people nabbed in Malaysia last week during the joint operation. Hong Kong police officers went to Kuala Lumpur ahead of a series of raids between December 5 and 8. The arrests were made after Nigerian authorities picked up a Nigerian woman on November 28. She was accused of collecting the proceeds of crime from the online scams.
Besides the two masterminds, 12 of the suspects were said to be core members of the syndicate – five Nigerian men, a man from Sierra Leone, three Malaysian women, a Malaysian man and a Singaporean woman.
"Half of the core members were responsible for using computers to create fake identities, and searching for and contacting victims, while the other half handled crime proceeds and remitted the money out of Hong Kong and other countries," Lam said.
Describing it as the "biggest and a sophisticated syndicate" that preyed on Hong Kong women, he said the gang also targeted women in Europe, America and Australia.
According to police, the victims and their lovers never met and communicated through the internet. A few had telephone conversations. Scammers typically disguised as “Caucasian” European or American men, claiming they were in professions such as engineering, banking, business or the military, befriended victims online. It would usually take at least one or two months to win the trust and sympathy of victims.
"Victims were told their so-called lovers would fly to Hong Kong to marry them and send wedding gifts and assets," Lam said.
But they were then told the gifts and assets had been confiscated by local authorities and victims were asked for help to pay handling and administrative fees or a surety. He said some victims were told their lovers had run into trouble and needed money urgently, among other excuses.
Hong Kong police sought help from Malaysian and Nigerian authorities after finding most of the crime proceeds in the 73 cases had been transferred to bank accounts in the two countries. It is understood the joint investigation began in April after Hong Kong police chief Stephen Lo Wai-chung went to Malaysia.
After an eight-month investigation to identify the syndicate masterminds and core members as well as their location, the authorities made arrests during the past two weeks.
It is understood the suspects will face prosecution in Malaysia and Nigeria. According to police, deception offences in Malaysia carry a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment.
Chief Inspector Hui Yee-wai said 90 per cent of the victims were female and included professionals, housewives and retirees. She urged the public to safeguard sensitive data and personal information.
"Don’t trust sweet-talking people easily," Hui said. "Stay cautious if requested to transfer money."
Source: South China Morning Post