The ‘Romance Scammers’ Cashing in on Lockdown Loneliness

December 5, 2020

Lockdown isolation has been a boon for the con artists and catfishers targeting lonely Hong Kong women.

When Yvonne left the bank in Hong Kong, she couldn’t stop smiling. She was genuinely happy to be giving a helping hand to her British boyfriend.

She hadn’t yet met him, but after a month of intense emailing and a few romantic calls, the boyfriend, who said he was the operation manager on a South American oil drill, had promised to fly over to meet Yvonne in person. However, before he did, he said he needed money for essential rig parts. She happily transferred HK$40,000 (US$5,160, £3,900).

But, soon after, the ‘boyfriend’ asked for another transfer. Yvonne, a 55-year-old hospitality worker, who requested to withhold her surname for privacy, realised that her online date was nothing more than a con artist. “He told me that his daughter had an accident and needed to raise money for surgery. That’s way too dramatic, and I finally woke up!”

Yvonne is hardly alone in falling prey to online romance scams in Hong Kong. According to data from the Hong Kong police, 681 people in the territory were duped out of their savings between January and September this year. It’s more than a 50% jump from last year’s figures.

The catfishers usually provide a façade of an exotic romance, in which they pose as soldiers, merchants or professionals on social media. They study their victims’ personal information carefully, before using it to strike up a text conversation with them in English. After intense texting, “fraudsters and victims will develop into a closer relationship: cyber lovers,” says a Hong Kong police spokesperson. Victims are then asked to transfer money to overseas bank accounts for scammers’ business purposes, financial difficulties and even requests for customs clearance fees for romantic gifts. “Usually, the victims and the fraudsters have never seen each other.”

The pandemic has increased this risk. With remote working becoming more common this year, many people have become lonelier and grown more desperate for connection. A November study showed “a dire situation with respect to mental health”, with more than 65% of respondents reporting clinical levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

These changes have provided an unexpected boon for catfishers, according to Hong Kong-based dating and relationship coach Valentina Tudose. “For con artists, Covid-19 has been a great opportunity. They can say that they are stuck in quarantine or another city so they cannot meet in person. [The victims] can’t challenge them easily like before.”

681 people in Hong Kong were duped out of their savings between January and September this year

In Hong Kong, women are particularly susceptible to online dating scams. Data from Hong Kong police shows that nearly 90% of the known victims this year were women aged 15 to 85, who collectively lost about HK$160.8m.

Tudose says this gender imbalance stems from the hidden societal pressure women face in the city, despite Hong Kong’s relatively high level of gender equality.

“It is related to the traditional values here. Girls were told by their parents that they should not date in schools or universities to focus on education, so they have little to no dating experience at the age of 24 or 25 even if they have a great job.” Soon after this, however, family expectations shift to focus on getting married and starting a family quickly. This leaves many young women vulnerable to scammers who are fluent in manipulating their emotions.

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