Hong Kong mastermind of HK$2 million bogus marriage scam that lured domestic helpers with promise of residency found guilty of fraud charges
The female mastermind of a syndicate that lured at least 13 domestic helpers into paying tens of thousands of dollars for sham marriages with the promise of residency in Hong Kong was found guilty of fraud charges on Friday in the first such case in the city.
The Hong Kong woman, Chan Oi-fan, 55, was convicted of four counts of conspiracy to defraud and one of perverting the course of justice in the District Court. Chan will be sentenced on February 28.
It was the first case in which the Immigration Department discovered domestic helpers had fallen prey to marriage scams.
The Indian and Nepalese helpers each paid between HK$40,000 (US$5,130) and HK$150,000 (US$19,000) to sign up for marriage, thinking they could stay in Hong Kong and find better jobs upon receiving a dependent visa.
Foreign helpers can only work in Hong Kong if they have a contract with an employer. They cannot work for anyone else and they are not eligible for residency in the city.
A senior immigration officer called the case unusual but stressed that it was an isolated one.
William Fung Pak-ho, the department’s assistant director in charge of enforcement, said the ring arranged around 20 fake marriages between 2015 and 2017, and made more than HK$2 million (US$255,000).
The syndicate mainly targeted male Hong Kong residents and offered them up to HK$60,000 (US$7,600) to marry domestic helpers and mainland Chinese people keen to live in the city.
But the local men never received any money after signing up for marriage.
Officials have arrested 17 men and 20 women aged between 29 and 65 since March 2017. Among the 37, eight were Indian nationals, five were from Nepal while two were mainlanders. The rest were locals.
“The syndicate persuaded them that by entering into a false marriage, they could obtain a dependent visa and would then be free to take up any employment in Hong Kong,” said Fung, adding that Chan fished for helpers through a local resident who spoke Hindi and Nepali.
Currently, there are 4,502 Indians and 219 Nepalese working as helpers in Hong Kong. There are about 380,000 foreign helpers in the city.
Fung said the racket was very sophisticated and paired bogus couples by narrowing age differences.
Besides drafting stories about how a couple met, Chan also faked photos at guest houses with different settings to pretend the pair were at home.
“The couple changed clothes for the photo shoot to pretend they had known each other for a long time. Some even took intimate photos hoping to prove their relationship,” Fung said.
“But fake stories always come with flaws and they would be exposed when we interviewed the pair.”
He said most of the helpers borrowed money from family back home to pay off the debts.
The scams came to light after officers looked into a bigamy case in March 2017 when the couple admitted Chan had arranged their bogus marriage. However, investigators had no details about Chan aside from a picture of her in a security guard uniform.
Officers later found that Chan worked as a guard in a shopping centre in Kowloon, and discovered copies of ID cards and passports after searching her flat.
Of the 37 suspects, 15 were convicted with 11 jailed for up to 18 months.
Mike Cheung Muk-yan, service head (Multicultural, Rehabilitation & Community Service) of the Hong Kong Christian Service, said he had never heard of such a visa-marriage scam from the NGO’s users.
“Those seeking a dependent visa through a fake marriage … need to understand that paying a significant sum of money for such arrangements will not buy them a permanent visa pathway in Hong Kong,” Cheung said.
“They also have to bear the risk that the visa applications may be refused after they were found to be linked with a criminal syndicate. Our frontline workers will disseminate the news and share the report with our service users, remind them to stay vigilant.”
Lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, who has been pushing for ethnic minority rights, said the case showed that authorities and consulates had not done enough to educate domestic helpers.
“When there are more ethnic minority people and domestic helpers in Hong Kong, I am worried more of them could fall prey to criminals … The Labour Department and Immigration Department’s job is not just to enforce the law, they should also take better care of migrant workers,” he said.
According to the law, it is illegal to make use of bogus marriage to obtain the requisite documents to enter Hong Kong, or to facilitate others to achieve such purpose through arranging bogus marriages.
People involved may have committed offences including conspiracy to defraud, making a false oath and giving a false declaration, which are liable on conviction to imprisonment for up to 14 years.
Official figures showed that the department investigated 2,722 suspected cases of bogus marriage between 2013 and 2017 and arrested 5,208 people, of which 606 were convicted.
Last year, the city’s courts convicted 67 people of offences related to bogus marriage. They were given jail terms ranging from 12 to 42 months.