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TAIPEI (Reuters) - When 96 people from China arrived at Taoyuan International Airport near Taipei after paying hundreds of dollars to compete in a music contest offering big cash prizes, they soon discovered they'd been swindled.
A con artist had faked invitations from the city of Taipei, pocketed the contest entry fees and abandoned the "contestants" at the airport when they arrived in mid-February. Some of the musicians were so angry that they refused to return home.
Such scams are expected to increase in Asia, particularly greater China, as the economic downturn motivates swindlers to prey on the down-and-out looking for a change in their luck, crime experts say.
"We see more and more victims now because of the economic crisis," said Chu Yiu-kong, a criminologist at Hong Kong University.
"Chinese people like money a lot, so it's easy to get trapped. Chinese people also believe in lucky opportunities, especially in difficult times."
Trade-reliant Asian economies are reeling from a global slump. Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan are in recession and major companies in the region are cutting production, freezing job recruitment and laying off workers to save money.
Criminologists say con artists often thrive in such desperate economic climates.
Scams which police say are particularly likely to increase include job search deception, fraudulent money lending and getting people to pay hefty fees to obtain bogus lottery winnings or buy into supposedly lucrative business opportunities.
In one type of scam that has recently become popular, swindlers prey on desperate job seekers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China by posing as recruiters and asking for applicants to invest in the companies they hope to join.
Those firms and the "investment" vanish by the time job seekers call back about their applications.
"We don't dare go to any roadside job agencies," said Zhou Yang, 26, of the south China boomtown of Shenzhen. "They cheat you most of the time."
Another creative scam artist in south China made 800,000 yuan ($117,000) last year by sending mobile phone text messages using a common Chinese name demanding repayment of a debt, local media said. Most of those who fell for the trick owed money to various people and assumed they were being pressed for repayment.
Such scams add misery to those already struggling to make ends meet.
"People will get desperate and morals will decline," said Chang Chin-lan, a prevention officer with Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Deception crimes rose by a third in Taiwan from about 31,000 in 2007 to 41,000 in 2008, police statistics show. Hong Kong police logged a similar surge in deception crimes in the fourth quarter of 2008, from 1,071 to 1,414 cases.
In Singapore, which anticipates more phone scams and other impersonation frauds this year as the economy sags, police say that "cheating and related offences" have jumped about 10 percent from 2,917 in 2006 to 3,254 last year.
"Phone scams are expected to continue in these tough economic times and culprits may come up with new methods of scams designed to 'scare' or 'entice' victims into parting with their money," the Singapore Police Force warned on its website.
Economic hardship aside, more sophisticated technology has also helped to fuel the growth in scams, allowing con artists to cast their nets wider and dupe people across borders.
Costly hoaxes began appearing en masse in Asia around 2001 with the rise of the Internet and mobile phones, which allow anonymity and shelter away from the long-arm of the law, sometimes several countries away, said Tsai Tien-mu, a criminology professor at Taipei Police College.
"It's easy for anyone to reach anyone," Tsai said. "Before, an aggressor had to meet the victim."
As con artists can easily hide, police struggle to crack fraud cases. Police officers in Taiwan solve just 10 percent of their cases.
In Hong Kong, police focus more on public education than tracking down individual con artists, said Chu of Hong Kong University. Often the swindlers are in China, far beyond the reach of law enforcement authorities in Hong Kong.
Police in mainland China are not much use for those who are fleeced, said Zhou, the Shenzhen job seeker.
"Even if you get cheated, calling the police is no use. It's rare that they actually show up and help you," said Zhou.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, James Pomfret in Hong Kong and Nopporn Wong-Anan in Singapore; Editing by Doug Young and Megan Goldin)
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