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LCQ2: Combating online and telephone frauds
     Following is a question by the Hon Starry Lee and a reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Tang Ping-keung, in the Legislative Council today (October 26):
     Earlier on, online employment frauds involving "selling people down the river" were uncovered in a number of countries in Southeast Asia, and have aroused concerns among various sectors about online and telephone frauds. According to the Police's information, online frauds are one of the fastest growing types of crimes in recent years, and the number of telephone frauds reported to the Police from January to July this year rose by more than 60 per cent compared to the same period last year. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) of the following total numbers and relevant information, in each of the past five years, regarding online and telephone frauds (including frauds involving "selling people down the river"): the number of reports and requests for assistance received, the nature of the cases, the amount of money involved, the number of persons arrested, the age distribution of the persons arrested, the number of persons prosecuted, and the penalties imposed on those convicted;
(2) in respect of stepping up efforts to combat the aforesaid unbridled crimes, whether it has taken effective measures at the legislative and law enforcement levels, and whether it will expeditiously set up a task force to study the punitive measures for curbing the aforesaid frauds; and
(3) whether it has actively co-operated with or sought the international community's actions to combat and crack down on such type of cunning transnational deception syndicates, and whether it will step up evidence collection through technology to grasp information on the deception gangs, explore with the Communications Authority and local telecommunications operators the strengthening of regulation of telephone calls from overseas, as well as study ways to make it easier for members of the public to identify telephone calls from overseas; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
     Deception is a serious offence. Regardless of how it is committed, stern enforcement actions will be taken as long as there are illegal activities involved. The Police have all along been combating different types of deception through different means including strengthening law enforcement, multi-agency co-operation, intelligence analysis, cross-boundary collaboration, and publicity and education.
     My reply to the question raised by the Member is as follows:
(1) In the past five years, there was a marked increase in the number of deception cases, rising significantly from 8 372 cases in 2018 to 19 249 cases in 2021, representing an approximately 130 per cent increase. The statistics are compiled based on the number of cases. As there may be more than one person making reports or requests for assistance in relation to the same deception incident, we do not maintain the number of individual reports or requests for assistance received.
     There were 19 444 deception cases in the first three quarters of 2022, representing a 39.7 per cent increase compared with the same period last year, involving over $3.3 billion. Over 70 per cent of the cases were related to online fraud. The overall trend on deception cases, as well as relevant information on online and telephone deception, are set out in Annex I.
     As regard the number of arrested persons, a total of 8 031 persons were arrested for deception-related cases between 2018 and 2021. Generally speaking, they would be prosecuted for offences of fraud or obtaining property by deception under the Theft Ordinance. Some may also be prosecuted for dealing with property known or reasonably believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence (i.e. the money laundering offence) under the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance. The number of prosecuted persons and the sentences of the convicted persons are maintained in accordance with the offence involved. A total of 1 541 people were prosecuted for offences under the Theft Ordinance mentioned above between 2018 and 2021. Amongst them, 1 290 were convicted, with a highest sentence of imprisonment for 10 years being imposed. The details are set out in Annex II.
     Regarding the incidents in which Hong Kong residents were suspected to have been lured to Southeast Asian countries and allegedly detained to engage in illegal work, the modus operandi of these incidents is different from previous job scams. Law enforcement agencies (LEAs) received sporadic requests for assistance (15 cases in total) since early 2022 till July, and with 28 requests for assistance being received in August alone. So far, LEAs have received 46 relevant requests.
     In mid-August this year, the Security Bureau set up a dedicated task force to co-ordinate follow-up actions by the relevant LEAs. So far, 40 Hong Kong residents are confirmed to be safe and among them, 30 have safely returned to Hong Kong with the assistance of the LEAs and seven do not require further assistance. The dedicated task force is actively assisting the remaining three to return to Hong Kong.
     The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau of the Hong Kong Police Force has taken up the investigation of relevant cases. So far, eight males and two females, aged between 17 and 51, were arrested by the Police for conspiracy to defraud. Among them, three have been charged.
(2) There are clear legal provisions combating fraudulent activities. Any person who commits the offence of fraud under section 16A of the Theft Ordinance is liable to imprisonment for up to 14 years, while any person who is charged with obtaining property by deception under section 17 of the same ordinance is liable to imprisonment for up to 10 years. In addition, any person charged with dealing with property known or believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence under section 25 of the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance for proceeds of deception is liable to imprisonment for up to 14 years and a fine of $5,000,000.
     Combating "quick-cash" crime is one of the key operational areas of the Police’s priorities. The focus of work in this regard includes the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre (ADCC) which operates round-the-clock. In the first three quarters of 2022, the ADCC prevented victims of over 400 cases from wiring money to fraudsters and intercepted nearly $1 billion before the money reached scammers. The Police set up task forces addressing specific types of deceptions, including Investment Fraud Focus Group, Telephone Deception Focus Group, and the Technology Crime Division which specifically handles, among other things, online deception. The Security Bureau also set up a dedicated task force on employment fraud in Southeast Asian countries.
     The Police have all along been tackling deception by intelligence-led operations. In the first three quarters of 2022, the Police neutralised multiple deception syndicates, arresting over 650 persons, involving a total loss of about $1.4 billion.
     Targeting scammers who make use of technology to defraud others, the Police will leverage the newly established "e-Crime Processing and Analysis Hub" to enhance the efficiency of technology crime and deception investigation through big-data analysis. The Police also launched a one-stop engine Scameter in September this year. Members of the public can enter suspicious phone numbers or information of online platforms to identify fraud and online pitfalls.
(3) Targeting syndicated and transboundary scams, the Police will continue to co-operate with Mainland and overseas law enforcement agencies to combat deception. The Police have seconded an officer to the INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore, through which the Police co-operate with the INTERPOL and law enforcement agencies of other regions to combat cross-boundary technology crime.
     The Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) has been adopting a multipronged approach to safeguard the integrity of telecommunications services and security of communications network, including the implementation of the Real-name Registration Programme for Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) Cards to prevent and assist in the investigation of crimes that make use of SIM Cards.
     Currently, a "+" sign is inserted in the calling number display of mobile phones for all incoming calls originating from outside Hong Kong, enabling the public to stay vigilant against such calls.
     To further enhance their work in this aspect, the OFCA, the Police and major mobile network operators set up a working group to formulate measures against telephone deception in September this year. Measures discussed include adopting applications to display specific markers in the calling number display on suspicious incoming calls to help their clients filter suspicious calls, as well as blocking suspicious calls based on the information provided by the Police.
     The Government will enhance publicity and education from all aspects. The public should also stay vigilant, do not trust online or telephone messages lightly and fall into the traps of scammers.
     Thank you President.
Ends/Wednesday, October 26, 2022
Issued at HKT 16:37
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