Hong Kong authorities have set up a taskforce to look into cases of residents falling for job scams in Southeast Asia, amid receiving calls for help from 20 victims – including eight still missing in Myanmar – since January.

michael cheuk
Under Secretary for Security Michael Cheuk addresses reporters on August 18, 2022. Photo: RTHK, via screenshot.

Under Secretary for Security Michael Cheuk said that among the 20 victims, 12 are confirmed to be safe. Ten of them have returned to Hong Kong while two are still overseas.

Authorities were currently not in contact with the remaining eight, all of whom are in Myanmar. Their freedoms are understood to be restricted.

“The taskforce will actively follow up on the cases and liaise with the victims’ relatives, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese embassies and consulate-generals in those countries, and Interpol,” Cheuk told reporters on Thursday.

The taskforce comprises officers from the Security Bureau, the police force and the Immigration Department.

Immigration Department
Immigration Department. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

News that at least 20 Hongkongers have fallen for employment scams in Southeast Asia follows reports that some 2,000 Taiwanese people, according to police estimates, have been trafficked to countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos after being lured by the promise of high-paying jobs.

Instead, they were forced to work for crime syndicates and carry out phone scams, and were made to pay hefty sums if they wanted to leave.

Cheuk said authorities had yet to confirm where in Myanmar the eight Hong Kong victims were, and appealed to the public to avoid visiting the northern and southern parts of the country. He declined to answer a question on whether the cases involve blackmail, saying it was not appropriate to comment at the moment while investigations were ongoing.

laptop keyboard computer scam
A laptop. Photo: Rishi/Unsplash.

The official said authorities were notified of the first call for help from a victim in January. The cases were then “sporadic” until picking up in June, Cheuk added.

He called on Hongkongers to be wary of online job postings. “Do not easily believe the job advertisements you see online,” Cheuk said. “If they promise quick cash with abnormally high salaries, but don’t require education or previous job experience requirements, you should be alert.”

Held in captivity

Local media reports have detailed the experience of some Hong Kong victims who were lured to Southeast Asian countries.

On Tuesday, Sing Tao reported that a Hong Kong man went to Thailand in July to meet his “girlfriend,” whom he met online. Once he arrived in Bangkok, he was taken to neighbouring Myanmar and his phone and passport were seized.

Hong Kong International Airport (Copy)
Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: GovHK.

He told Sing Tao that he was ordered to scam people or face a beating. He was detained for more than a month before returning to Thailand and eventually to Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Oriental Daily reported that it was in contact with a Hong Kong man being held in Myanmar. The man claimed he was being kept at resort-like premises in Kayin state, a region along the Myanmar-Thailand border. He said he was required to earn five million yuan by scamming others or pay a ransom of HK$300,000 for his freedom.

An ex-district councillor said on Commercial Radio on Thursday that he was in touch with the families and friends of two victims. Andy Yu, the former vice-chairperson of the Yau Tsim Mong District Council, said their captors would not release them unless their families paid around HK$100,000 in ransom or until they had raised a specified sum through scams.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.