Stranger Danger: Married woman sues to recover HK$330,000 after online romance scam

District Court at Wan Chai Tower. Photo (for illustration): Annette Chan/Coconuts Media
District Court at Wan Chai Tower. Photo (for illustration): Annette Chan/Coconuts Media

A married woman has sued five men who allegedly cheated her out of more than US$42,000 in an online romance scam.

Ming Pao reported yesterday that plaintiff Cheng Shuk-ying went to the District Court on Monday to try and recover the lost money, and to prevent the defendants from using the ill-gotten loot.

The money was deposited into five bank accounts belonging to five men identified as Promma Dutsanne, Feng Xiaofu, Tam Kai-wan, Furuzawa Tomoaki, and Kao Rong-sheng, who are reported to live in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Gansu province, and Kyoto, Japan.

The saga began in September when Cheng became Facebook friends with a man called “James Chung,” who claimed to be a US-born airline pilot. The pair exchanged numbers and communicated with each other through WhatsApp.

In an interview with Apple Daily, Cheng said she received a photo of James in the cockpit, accepting it as proof of his piloting credentials, and that she added Chung on Facebook because “it’s good to have more friends from overseas.”

A month later, James asked Cheng for her address saying he wanted to send her some expensive gifts.

Cheng told Apple Daily that James said the package would include a gold chain, Gucci and Chanel handbags, an iPhone, and a gold Rolex watch, and even sent her photos of the gifts.

“These are things I wouldn’t buy myself; he was gifting them, so I wanted them,” she told the newspaper.

A few days later a woman called “Ivy” from “IFS Logistics” phoned Cheng saying that the gifts were overweight and asking her to pay a HK$17,000 (US$2,170) fine into a bank account in order to claim the package.

In the days following that first phone call, Ivy called Cheng again saying that more money needed to be transferred into different accounts. The reasons given for the ever-multiplying surcharges included fees for checking whether money contained in the gifts was genuine, guaranteeing protection for the expensive gifts, taxes imposed by the city’s customs authorities, and hiring security guards to escort the package to her address.

Cheng made cash payments ranging from HK$17,000 to HK$120,000 (about US$2,170 to US$15,300) to five different bank accounts on six occasions, but Ivy called yet again, this time to say that police had seized her package and she would have to pay another fee to receive the gifts.

It was then that Cheng began to suspect something might be amiss, telling her husband what had happened and, upon realizing she had been scammed, calling the police.

Cheng maintained she had learned her lesson from the experience, and will no longer add strangers on social media. Her husband, she added, wasn’t mad, but had told her, “Don’t be stupid from now on.”

The prevalence of similar love scams has increased in recent years, as has the amount of money people are swindled out of.

The South China Morning Post reported in December that cyber scammers cheated Hongkongers out of HK$451 million in the first 10 months of 2018 — up from HK$109 million for the same period in 2017 — and that the majority of victims were lonely hearts.

For years, Hong Kong police have been warning lovelorn Hongkongers not to fall for the charms of strangers on social media. In 2016 they enlisted the help of snooker star Ng On-yee, who played a role in a cautionary short film, based on a true story, in which an online sweet-talker named “Leon” uses a tale of a sick mum to fleece “Cindy” for cash.

In March 2018, police released a promotional 20-minute video on RTHK warning people that romance fraud typically involves men posing as Europeans or North Americans with exciting jobs, like engineers, ship captains, servicemen, and managers in multinational corporations.

On Valentine’s Day, they also posted this video reminding people not to fall prey to scams.

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