HK: Fraudsters offer inheritance funds

Hua Mulan

Staff member

Letters claiming to come from a Hong Kong-based director of one of the mainland's biggest banks are trying to lure victims into a cash scam with the promise of a share in a fictitious US$12.2 million fortune.

Personalised letters sent by post to people in the United States and Britain are signed Wei Ding Xiang, who falsely claims to be a director of the private banking arm of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in Hong Kong.

He tells recipients he is handling the estate of a Westerner who died in an accident in mainland China, leaving no will and with no next of kin - but a US$12.2 million fortune which would revert to the Chinese state unless claimed.

The letters say the dead man shares the same unusual surname as the people targeted in the scam, creating an opportunity for an illicit transaction that would make the addressee and the fictitious banker wealthy.

'What I propose is that since I have exclusive access to the file, you will be made the beneficiary of these funds,' the letter says. 'Through my covert efforts, my bank will contact you, informing [you] that money has been assigned to you.

'For your troubles, I propose that we split the money in half. In banking circles this happens all the time. The other option is that the money will revert back to the state. Nobody is getting hurt; this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us.'

The story quickly unravelled when the Sunday Morning Post obtained one of the letters sent to a London address and e-mailed the sender, who gave a Causeway Bay address and a Hong Kong phone number.

The address - 36 Haven Court, Leighton Road - turned out to be a narrow corridor of shops beneath an ageing block of low-rent flats and offices. Number 36 is a derelict one-room shop which a neighbour says is used for storage only. 'There's definitely no Mr Wei there,' he said.

The phone number is a forwarding number that can be bought for about US$15 a month and which enable calls to be patched straight through to overseas numbers. The e-mail address is an untraceable account.

When we contacted Wei pretending to express an interest, he replied with a long e-mail complete with a copy of his passport, a bogus ICBC staff card and a utilities bill purporting to show his address.

The e-mail said: 'In everything one does with another there must be a meeting of minds ... As we say in Cantonese 'Thoroughness is what is needed here.''
When we claimed to be in Hong Kong on business and tried to set up a meeting, he repeatedly set up appointments and then failed to keep them, sending e-mails in the middle of the night.

According to a police officer familiar with such scams, the e-mails were probably being sent from overseas, and as likely to be from Britain as Nigeria or anywhere else.

The fraud works by preying on people's greed and gradually winning their trust. At a later stage in the supposed transfer, unexpected legal fees or other emergencies crop up, requiring up-front payments of thousands of US dollars.

The police officer said: 'Mr Wei's letter seems like a clever version of an old fraud. The people behind it may never have set foot in Hong Kong.
'They are playing on Hong Kong's reputation as a city where huge sums of money are handled, and China's reputation in the West as a place where there is both great wealth and a certain level of official corruption.'

Doris Lee, of the legal and compliance department of ICBC (Asia) in Hong Kong, said: 'Mr Wei is not an employee of ICBC in Hong Kong.'

She said the fraud had been referred to ICBC's head office in Beijing for investigation. ICBC had not come across a fraud of this kind involving the bank previously, Lee said.

How much, in pounds, such 'advance fee' or '419' scams are estimated to cost the British economy each year