A total of 254 Chinese citizens arrested in Cambodia and Indonesia for running telephone and Internet scams targeting Chinese victims were repatriated Tuesday to face charges in China, the Public Security Ministry said.

A statement on the ministry's website said the suspects were flown back to Beijing and three other Chinese cities aboard chartered flights. They are suspected of committing upward of 4,000 major cases of cross-border telephone fraud targeting victims in more than 20 cities and provinces, the ministry said.

No details about the nature of the scams were given, although the ministry said such fraud cases are among the fastest-growing categories of crime and some of the most difficult to solve. Police in Cambodia said the group detained there had set up their operation in rented homes in the beach resort town of Sihanoukville, and that authorities were still seeking the masterminds.

The ability to exploit electronic bank transfers from a safe distance, hide identities and constantly vary the nature of their scams allowed those criminals to continue misleading victims and avoid detection, China's Public Security Ministry said.

Such scams generally involve suspects taking on a wide range of false identities in order to obtain personal information or prompt victims into transferring funds into overseas bank accounts.

Previously busted scam rings have involved scammers posing as staff from banks, telecommunications firms, social security and public health care agencies demanding payment of non-existent fees or account balances. Others would pose as police or postal service staff claiming to be investigating crimes such as drug smuggling and money laundering and demanding personal information to clear the victims of suspicion.

Still others would pretend to offer cheap air or train tickets, low-interest loans or contraband such as drugs, firearms and surveillance equipment. Phony job offers, lottery wins, cars, houses and school admissions were also used as bait, while others were scammed by phony relatives or acquaintances desperate for money to pay off debts or medical bills.

The suspects who arrived Tuesday were the first to be repatriated since a new campaign against overseas-based telephone fraud was launched last month. The ministry said it would continue to strengthen intelligence gathering and coordination with foreign agencies so as to "leave criminals with nowhere to rest, nowhere to hide and nowhere to commit their crimes."

Cambodia's national police force said on its website Tuesday that 168 Chinese, including 19 women, had been sent home aboard two chartered flights after being arrested on charges of using the Internet to extort money from Chinese victims.

Cambodia acted on information provided by the Chinese authorities, and police from the two countries are now working together to find the masterminds of the scheme, it quoted Gen. Khun Sambo, Cambodia's deputy chief of police, as saying.

Senior Cambodian immigration police officer Gen. Ouk Haiseila said the 168 Chinese had been arrested Oct. 31 in Sihanoukville. The group, some of whose members had been in Cambodia for two years, had rented a guesthouse and large villa in which to live and run their phone scams, Haiseila said.

___

Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.