Surge in phone scams: Are Hongkongers particularly stupid?

August 11, 2015 11:02
Hongkongers targeted by phone scammers are mainly businessmen who have to travel between Hong Kong and the mainland frequently. Photo: HKEJ

In recent months Hong Kong has witnessed a surge in the number of phone scams. A survey indicated that as many as 47 percent of our citizens received such phoney calls.

Most of the scammers were calling from the mainland, often posing as staff members of courier companies, banks, the industrial and commerce bureau, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, or even as mainland police officers, asking the victims to deposit money to specified mainland bank accounts on various pretexts.

Some daring scammers even targeted Hong Kong celebrities, local legislators and representatives of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

In fact, these rampant phone scams have their roots in the flaws of our system.

Phone scams are nothing new, but the reason why there has been a sudden surge is probably because the mainland economy has turned really sluggish.

The “domestic market” can no longer satisfy scammers and fraud syndicates, who then have to turn to “offshore markets” to explore new opportunities.

On the other hand, the financial systems between Hong Kong and the mainland have become increasingly interconnected, allowing scammers to transfer their money back to the mainland easily.

Growing interactions between Hong Kong and the mainland have given rise to cross-border scams, a new breed of crime.

As to why Hongkongers are being targeted by mainland scammers, the reason is probably not because we are particularly stupid.

As some sociologists have pointed out, in any society around 3 percent of the people have some sort of anti-social personality disorder, and, similarly, a tiny percentage of the people are vulnerable to scams.

Just like sales representatives making cold calls, scammers, as long as they are working hard enough — let’s say, making a thousand calls a day — can make a “sale” with some unsuspecting “customers”.

Apart from the odds, the reason why Hongkongers are often easier to fall victim to mainland phone scammers, even though we are not particularly stupid, has something to do with the social mechanism on the mainland.

Those who are targeted by scammers are mainly businessmen who have to travel between Hong Kong and the mainland frequently, and their traveling habits often make it easier for scammers to collect their personal data and phone numbers. (That’s why frequent travelers to the mainland must always be cautious about disclosing their personal data when booking hotels and cars, or even when distributing their business cards.)

Since the rule of man reigns supreme on the mainland, it is rather common for people in authority to call someone privately to “kindly” remind them that they might have committed some minor offenses, and tell them they can settle it with money.

Things like this could be happening across the nation at any given moment every day.

Due to such built-in flaws in the system, and the fact that the rule of man overrides the rule of law, mainland scammers can always find their prey.

The article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 6.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist