New app to tackle phone scammers

Local | Phoebe Ng 12 Apr 2017

The first police-verified phone scam alert app - developed by City University of Hong Kong - will be ready for download in around a year or two.

The app alerts users with a warning message when incoming numbers are identified as having been linked to deception in the past. The growing database already has more than 400 numbers, provided by phone-screening app developer HK JunkCall and verified by police.

CityU Apps Lab director Ray Cheung Chak-chung said it took a year and HK$100,000 to develop the prototype app. "It will scan all incoming numbers on the database to check if the caller has been previously involved in phone deception," Cheung said yesterday.

However, it cannot identify unreported scam numbers, as only numbers previously involved in scams will be in the database.

HK JunkCall spokesman William Wu Man-hon admitted the shortcoming, saying the database has to depend heavily on users' feedback. "Scammers change their numbers all the time. It would be impossible to track all of them," Wu said.

On the other hand, it also means all scam alerts will be accurate. "With police verification, it greatly increases the reliability of the app by eliminating false alarms," Cheung said.

CityU's cross-disciplinary research team developed the app after being commissioned by the police. An initial pilot study showed that over 70 percent of participants found the app "helpful," and over half "felt safe" with the app installed.

Around 60 users took part in the study from December to last month. Participants were mainly elderly people, pensioners and university students, who are most vulnerable to phone deception. CityU professor Jessica Li Chi-mei, who led the study, said the results were "promising."

She added: "The CityU team is confident in pursuing a larger and more comprehensive project to help protect Hong Kong citizens from phone deceptions."

A project that focused on financial fraud against the elderly drew police attention in 2015. Li, pictured, said more research on combating fraud will be undertaken when more funding is secured, adding the app will likely appear in app stores in one or two years.

Retired civil servant Chan, 64, said the app installation was not too difficult. He felt safer after using the app and also thought it helped raise his awareness of deception.

There were 7,260 cases of deception last year, down 22.4 percent from 2015.

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