The Hong Kong police force’s new anti-fraud squad has dealt with about 450 requests to halt the payment of a total of HK$880 million lost in various online and phone rackets in less than five months, prompting the force plan to double its manpower, the Post has learned.

Since the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre was set up in July, the seven-member team has helped freeze nearly HK$99 million before the money was transferred out of the scammers’ bank accounts, mostly in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

While dealing with more than 9,800 calls to the centre’s 24-hour inquiry hotline (18222), one police source said, the team also prevented 44 callers from falling for online or phone scams.

“[The 44 callers] included would-be victims and those who were told to pay more after being already having been scammed,” he said.

Since July 20, the centre has received 441 requests to halt payments totalling HK$880 million that had been transferred into scammers’ bank accounts. More than half of the requests were made by overseas companies and law enforcement agencies.

Calls received involved 229 commercial email fraud cases, 60 reports of phone scams, 93 romance scams and social media deception cases and 24 investment fraud cases.

“With the help of our mainland counterparts and local banks and authorities, we have halted the payment of nearly HK$99 million to fraudsters in 89 cases and frozen the money in the scammers’ bank accounts before it was siphoned off by con men,” a police source said.

The biggest case among the 89 requests concerned a commercial email scam that involved about HK$24 million.

An American company was deceived into transferring money into a Hong Kong bank account by an email contact pretending to be a business partner. About HK$770 million had been transferred out of the bank accounts controlled by the swindlers before local police stepped in.

The Post reported last week that underground banks were helping international fraudsters set up accounts in Hong Kong and launder hundreds of millions of dollars from commercial email scams.

Admitting that it was difficult to retrieve money lost in scams, another source said: “In some cases, money was transferred into different accounts and moved out of Hong Kong within an hour after it was deposited into the designated accounts. Our officers have to race against time and seize every minute and second to retrieve the money in each case.”

The centre, set up under the Commercial Crime Bureau, pools police resources to handle scam cases and run the 24-hour inquiry hotline. It formulates strategies, collects intelligence, offers support and organises awareness campaigns.

Currently, the seven-member team carries out its tasks with the help of several officers who were temporarily transferred from another crime unit.

The Post understands that the force is expected to create seven new posts to expand the centre in the next financial year.

Police handled 498 commercial email fraud cases involving losses of HK$647 million in the first nine months of this year. In the same period, there were 496 phone scam cases in which fraudsters posed as Hong Kong or mainland officials and bagged HK$157 million.

Latest figures show the number of deception cases dropped by 2.7 per cent to 5,879 in the first 10 months of this year, compared with 6,044 in the same period last year. Total losses in that period also dropped by about 40 per cent to HK$1.1 billion from about HK$1.8 billion.