Travel industry professionals in Hong Kong have been busted trying to scheme nearly $500,000 out of the government via a subsidy scheme designed to relaunch the industry.
The alleged scammers, made up of 14 directors and five employees from 15 travel agencies, were arrested on suspicion of using the Hong Kong government’s Green Lifestyle Local Tour Incentive Scheme to fraudulently obtain nearly HK$3 million ($496,086).
The scheme was launched in 2019 to encourage people to enjoy nature, promote conservation and biodiversity and raise awareness about the government’s efforts in promoting a “green lifestyle and tourism”.
Agents were rewarded with HK$100 ($15) when they booked Hong Kong citizens on eligible green lifestyle local tours from 20 January 2020 to 31 March 2022.
In June 2020, the government doubled the incentive amount to HK$200 ($30) to boost local tourism in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Police said it was the first case of fraud involving the scheme.
Fake documents were used by the arrested party to claim money from the scheme using receipts from restaurants, tour bus companies and insurance companies chief inspector Lo Yin-lam of the Eastern district crime squad said, according to the South China Morning Post.
“We suspect travel agencies involved did not organise related tours and used fake receipts to apply for the government subsidy. The amount involved was HK$2.95 million in total,” Lo said.
The Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, which worked with the government to develop the scheme, uncovered the scam while verifying the claims with the businesses listed on the receipts.
“The travel agencies involved are relatively small in scale and have been operating for between two and 20 years,” Lo said.
The 19 suspects, aged between 32 and 83, were arrested during a series of raids last week for conspiracy to defraud and could face up to 14 years in jail.
Police told Hong Kong’s The Standard that investigations are continuing and more arrests are possible.
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