The number of eager Hong Kong job-hunters falling prey to scams rose fourfold in the first two months of this year, with victims losing HK$6.4 million (US$823,000) to con artists amid the highest jobless rate in 17 years.
In addition to stealing victims’ personal data to apply for loans, police have also warned of so-called brushing scams, which trick victims into placing orders on phoney shopping apps to boost a seller’s rating and business volume. Promised a full refund of the money they used in addition to a commission, victims received neither.
Chief inspector Chan Yat-wai of the Commercial Crime Bureau said fraudsters would direct their marks to transfer money into a real bank account, then manipulate the app’s account so it appeared topped up and ready to use for making purchases. Victims were told their commissions could be as high as 10 per cent.
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“Scammers edited the app’s account balance to make victims believe that they were profiting. But culprits made up excuses when victims wanted to cash out the account,” Chan said. “Victims only realised they were cheated when the app was deleted [from an online app store] and the scammers vanished.”
In all, 86 jobseekers were conned out of HK$6.4 million in January and February via a variety of scams, compared with 17 Hongkongers losing HK$770,000 over the same period last year. The youngest victim was just 16 years old.
In 2020, the number of victims rose by 74 per cent, from 197 to 343 year-on-year, with financial losses also increasing by 28 per cent to nearly HK$20 million.
The biggest victim so far this year was a 21-year-old unemployed woman who contacted police in January after losing HK$730,000 in a brushing scam. The woman was “hired” in December to buy luxury fashion and handbags. Believing she could earn up to 5 per cent commission, or HK$36,000 in total, she made 11 bank transactions and even maxed out her credit card.
She suspected she had been scammed after losing contact with her “boss” a month later and being unable to recover her money.
Other scams involved hiring victims for a position they were told involved making bank transactions, then using the personal data provided on the job application to apply for loans without the victim knowing.
When the loans arrived at the victim’s bank account, scammers told the victims they had sent the money and that the entire sum should be forwarded to a third account to earn commission. After the fraudsters disappeared, the victim was stuck with the loan payments.
In January, a 60-year-old security guard lost HK$600,000 falling for a similar scam after being told he could earn 10 per cent of the sum by transferring it. He only realised he had been tricked after receiving calls from a loan company in February.
Joblessness in Hong Kong worsened in January, hitting 7 per cent – close to a 17-year high. Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong blamed the worsening labour market on the outbreak of the fourth wave of coronavirus infections that started in the latter half of November. He had earlier warned the unemployment rate would likely top 7 per cent following February’s Lunar New Year holiday.
Kelly Cheng Lai-kei, acting chief of the Commercial Crime Bureau, said jobseekers, desperate for a job or cash, were often easy prey for scammers.
“Sometimes the victims hadn’t even been to the office of the so-called company or understand the nature of the job before giving out their personal information and being cheated,” she said.
The rolling quarterly unemployment rate between November and January was 0.4 percentage points higher than the 6.6 per cent recorded in the three months ending December 31, according to the Census and Statistics Department in February.
Some 7,500 more people were out of work as of January 31, bringing the total to 253,300, the highest since October 2004. The underemployment rate, meanwhile, jumped 0.9 percentage points to a record high of 6.6 per cent.