Hong Kong police have arrested 24 domestic workers in connection with a HK$27 million money laundering scheme. The scheme was run by Nigerian scammers who lured the workers into opening bank accounts to receive illegal proceeds in exchange for four-figure sums, police said.

domestic workers coronavirus covid masks
File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Amongst the arrested were two Nigerian citizens — a Hong Kong identity card holder and a holder of a temporary stay permit — as well as three core members of the scheme, who were from Nigeria and the Philippines. The group were suspected to have laundered email and romance scam proceeds through 35 proxy bank accounts between July 2020 and May this year.

The individuals — four men and 16 women aged between 21 and 73 — were arrested this week, Financial Intelligence and Investigation Bureau Acting Superintendent Tang Hoi-tung said during a press briefing on Wednesday. The police unit was established in June this year.

“The scheme lasted about a year… They [domestic workers] were instructed to surrender the bank cards and passwords,” said Acting Chief Inspector Chan Hok-lun. The group would then catfish their victims into romantic relationships using fake social media profiles of people posing as engineers or managers working in multinational companies.

Financial Intelligence and Investigation Bureau Acting Superintendent Tang Hoi-tung
Financial Intelligence and Investigation Bureau Acting Superintendent Tang Hoi-tung. Photo: Police screenshot via Facebook.

The scammers typically urged victims to wire money to bank accounts by claiming they were in urgent need of money, or that they mailed gifts to the victims but customs clearance fees needed to be paid.

Romance scam surge

Victims known by the authorities counted at least HK$13 million in losses, police said. In one case, a 46-year-old woman met one of the suspected scammers who claimed to be a computer technician from Cyprus through an online dating app. She was repeatedly told he would visit her in Hong Kong, but the person disappeared after she sent him a total of HK$1.68 million.

Core members of the scheme would draw the cash from ATMs using the bank cards and pass them to the group’s Nigerian leaders, said acting Chief Inspector Chan Hok-lun.

The number of romance scams surged by over 90 per cent in the first half of 2021, from 429 to 822 cases, according to police statistics released on Wednesday.

Tang reminded the public not to fall for similar scams, which lure individuals into opening proxy bank accounts, then selling or leasing their bank accounts in exchange for money.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.