How to spot an online scam? Hong Kong experts say be wary of high-return investment deals, never overcommit cash and avoid suspicious apps

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Hong Kong police have begun investigating reports that at least 158 people lost about HK$155 million (US$19.8 million) to scammers on a virtual asset exchange platform called Hounax. That followed another high-profile case last month of people claiming they lost at least HK$1.36 million after being tricked by fraudulent advertisements for dog meat and other products. The police recorded a 52.5 per cent jump in all types of deception from January to September compared with the same period last year, with 29,650 cases and total reported losses rising from HK$3.38 billion to HK$4.99 billion. In their midyear update earlier, the police said three in four scams were cases of online deception. Here is a list of major online scams in Hong Kong and advice on how people can protect themselves. Hot investment tips to make money fast In the Hounax case, scammers reached out to people through social media and WhatsApp, inviting them to join group chats where “hot tips” were shared, the police said. Those who showed interest would start an investment account, and they had to download an app and transfer funds to a third-party bank account to top up their account. While the account showed high returns on investment, victims could not withdraw the money when they tried. Online investment scams resulted in losses of HK$2.13 billion from January to September – more than two-fifths of the total swindled and accounting for the most money lost in fraud cases. Hounax changed website address 32 times to evade Hong Kong authorities Gilbert Ng Man-him, a lawyer specialising in virtual assets, said the promise of extremely high returns was a “red flag” and advised people to do thorough research before investing substantial sums. The cryptocurrency industry in particular was “highly volatile” he said, and it could be hard to tell legitimate platforms from fraudulent ones, given recent cases of seemingly legitimate platforms going bankrupt or falling afoul of the law. “In this industry, we never put all our eggs in one basket, so diversify and only invest an amount you are comfortable with,” he said. Hong Kong to review laws, regulators’ powers after crypto scandals: John Lee ‘For a short time only’ shopping scams Shoppers are lured by bogus websites advertising special offers, discounts and overseas purchasing services for a limited period. Once a victim sends money to a specified account, the scammers vanish. Online shopping scams formed the largest group of fraud cases in the first nine months of the year, making up nearly a quarter of all cases. In August, more than 230 Hongkongers fell for online shopping scams in a single week. Francis Fong Po-kiu honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, advised shoppers to use the police force’s “scameter” site to check if a new platform might be fake. 187 Hongkongers lose total of HK$1.3 million in online shopping scams over 1 week They should always beware of offers at super low prices from unfamiliar sources. “Personal awareness is still the No 1 way to protect yourself,” he said. “The websites can change everyday.” Fong also advised online shoppers to be careful with providing credit card information on unfamiliar websites, especially those that ask for some form of verification such as a one-time password, as their bank may then hold them liable for the transaction. Trojan Horse apps ‘the most dangerous’ Dog meat is illegal in Hong Kong but there was an uproar last month when fraudsters advertised that and other products for sale. People who wanted to buy the other products on offer were told to download an Android app – Trojan horse malware. Once downloaded, apps like these allow scammers to remotely control the user’s phone, access its information and even make bank transfers without its owner’s knowledge, Fong said. Buyer of HK$25 noodles loses HK$415,000 in new twist to Hong Kong dog meat scam “Anything you can do on your phone they can do remotely,” he said, adding that kind of access potentially made it “the most dangerous” scam, but it affected Android phones mainly. Fong also advised users to download antivirus software onto their smartphones and other devices. Hijacked WhatsApp accounts Last month, police said there had been a ninefold surge in hijacked instant messaging accounts such as WhatsApp between August and September, with scammers swindling HK$2.3 million in September alone. In the latest development, scammers posted sham login pages for popular messaging platforms online, which appeared as “sponsored content” at the top of search results. Scam websites disguised as WhatsApp pages top Google search results in Hong Kong A victim who scanned a QR code on the page would be linked to the fraudsters who then gained access to the victim’s account. The tricksters could now impersonate the victim to scam people on the phone contact list. People can guard against account hijacking by enabling two-step authentication and PIN codes for their accounts and by setting up a recovery email, according to HKCERT. Fong advised users to check which devices are linked to their WhatsApp account, and log out of any that are no longer in use or unfamiliar. ‘Guess who I am?’ scam won’t go away This trick has been around a long time, but victims still keep falling for it. In the “guess who I am” scam, the fraudster calls and pretends to be a family member in distress and asks for money. In October, a 71-year-old retired woman reported that she lost her entire savings of HK$3.3 million after receiving a call from someone pretending to be her son. There were 1,822 cases in the first nine months of the year, well above the 1,540 reports for the whole of last year. 2 arrested on suspicion of cheating Hong Kong elderly woman out of HK$3.3 million Other common phone scams include fraudsters claiming that someone close to the victim has been kidnapped to demand a ransom, and fraudsters pretending to be officials. Fong advised people not to transfer any money before trying to contact the person apparently in trouble to check the story. “Try to verify if they are in any adverse situation,” he said.

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