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China crime feature.

HONG Kong might be renowned for being one of the safest cities in the world--mugging and other forms of street violence are practically unknown--but that's not to say that commercial crime doesn't rear its ugly head in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, reports Edward Peters.

WHILE a fast, and not necessarily altogether 100% honest, buck has always been part of the city's commercial credo, cutting corners to get ahead is a relatively new phenomenon across the border in (previously communist) mainland China. It all started when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to bump start the economy, and he did it with the celebrated words: "To get rich is glorious." If only he'd mentioned "legally".

Hong Kong's law enforcement agencies have had a busy time of it so far in 2004. Advance fee "419" scamsters reared their ugly heads in May, with an attempt to dupe Hong Kongers using local identities and email addresses. The alarm was first raised following the discovery in 2003 of a Nigerian who had attempted to swindle cash from victims by requesting their help to transfer US$26 million from a local bank account in return for a hefty commission.

This year, adopting an online disguise, fraudsters sent out thousands of emails supposedly from dishonest workers from banks based in Hong Kong. One email, purportedly from a clerk named "Wang Qin" at the Hang Seng bank, claimed a deceased Iraqi general had left US$20.5 million in deposits. Another, from one "Lee Chow-wong" at Chekiang First Bank, stated that his client had died intestate leaving US$30 million. Both emails suggested the recipient posed as a next-of-kin to claim the moneys, having first divulged personal financial details.

"I know of cases that when people received these emails, they have been told to pay money into an account in Hong Kong," said Commercial Crime Bureau detective senior inspector Tobi(CORRECT SPELLING) Lothian.

"There are definitely some crooks in Hong Kong who are doing it, though whether they are from West Africa themselves or local I can't say, however as they are claiming to be Chinese it would be difficult for a foreigner to pull off the scam."

While these dupes of the 419 scam, (named after the section number in Nigerian law that applies to it), could be said to have erred on the side of greediness, some totally innocent victims in Hong Kong were hoodwinked out of HK$1 million (US$128,000) in a series of scams last April. Job seekers answering newspaper adverts for clerical positions were instead lured into buying beauty or health products from shell companies, according to Senior Inspector Peggy Yip Ching-han of the Crime Prevention Bureau.

And in a second recruitment deception case, Insp Yip reported applicants were required to pay several hundred dollars to file documentation during a job interview that was held in a public place. Surprise, surprise, the interviewers disappeared soon after, taking the money without leaving any contact details.

Insp Yip said in the first quarter of 2004, some 23 job seekers fell victim to scams. Last year there were 179 cases involving HK$9.5 million. And Chan Wing-kai of the Consumer Council warned against bogus modelling agencies, which demanded sign-up or beauty school fees but which never gave out any jobs, reporting 31 such cases in the first quarter of 2004.

Yet more unemployed dupes came to a dead end in Hong Kong in February when 24 mainland visitors had to be bailed out by the Beijing Liaison Office, after they were each cheated out of Yuan 60,000 (US$7,249).

The men, aged between 19 and 43, told officials they met an Israeli man in their hometown in Hebei province who promised them jobs in the Middle East. But they first had to pay a registration fee, and travel to their new jobs via Hong Kong.

They came to the SAR passing through the mainland border town of Shenzhen using valid travel documents, and a tour guide arranged for them to stay in a hotel. However their Israeli sponsor failed to put in an appearance, and instead of making their fortunes in Arabia the unlucky two dozen ended up sleeping rough in a park, having been thrown out of their hotel.

Meanwhile, the Chinese inherent love of gambling continues unabated, offering yet another opportunity for the criminally minded to trap the unwary or plain greedy. This is partly the reason why the only gambling officially sanctioned in the SAR is overseen by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs a weekly lottery called Mark Six.

However, in the past half year around 30 fraudulent websites, hosted on the mainland as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan, have sprung up, each claiming to have inside knowledge of the numbers to be drawn in the coming week.

One--now defunct--site, www.66699.com, invited punters to pay between Yuan 4,800 and 8,800 to get the inside scoop, a dubious proposition as the Mark Six winner is decided by numbered balls which tumble out of a container at random on live TV.

Incredibly, many mainlanders fell for the scam, possibly believing the site's promise to refund all fees if the predicted numbers failed to come up. Jockey Club spokesman Wilson Cheng Kwok-ming said that while the matter had been reported to the police, it was difficult to crack down on overseas websites as they constantly switched addresses and domains.

Whether scams involve hi-tech or low cunning, plain stupidity and bare-faced chicanery seem to go hand in hand when it comes to Hong Kong scams. According to police sources, earlier this year two African nationals turned up in Hong Kong plying a scam that is almost as infamous as the "419"--the old "buy chemicals to clean dyed banknotes" trick. The duo, aged 22 and 28 from Guinea and Liberia, told potential victims they had travelled the world, including South Africa, the mainland and Hong Kong, with US$10 million in ill-gotten funds.

They explained the banknotes were dyed for security reasons, and could only be cleaned with a special chemical, which just happened to be very expensive. And, as luck would have it, neither of them had the ready cash to purchase that pricey chemical. In return for HK$100,000 the dubious pair promised a cut of HK$2 million, possibly the best return on investment ever offered since the British ran up the Union Jack in Hong Kong in 1841. However, Hong Kongers' street smarts served them sell in this case, said the SAR police, and the scamsters found no takers and are believed to have moved on in search of more willing partners.

EDWARD PETERS, in Hong Kong
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Author:Peters, Edward
Publication:International News Services.com
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:1121
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