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Anyone can be a victim: Easy to fall prey to scams

Police say scams involving e-commerce, loans and the impersonation of officials have led to the overall crime rate rising, and experts say anyone can be a victim.

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Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, Charmaine Ng on 04 Sep 2018

The Straits Times

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When it comes to scams and their victims, lawyers have handled a litany of complaints that serve as cautionary tales.

 

There was the insurance agent who invested $450,000, hoping to double his money, and ignored alarm bells even when the investment executive told him Singapore's finance minister would personally hand him a cheque. It was a scam.

 

In another case, a tutor with a master's in psychology was duped into being a money mule after befriending someone on social media.

 

The divorcee withdrew about $400,000 that had been wired into her bank account, thinking the money was meant for her overseas boyfriendto buy a home here. Fortunately, she was acquitted of receiving and laundering stolen money.

 

Lawyers Satwant Singh and Peter Ong Lip Cheng cited the cases to show that anyone can be a victim.

 

Mr Ong told The Straits Times: "You can be highly educated but still get scammed. What I always see is that people become victims when they let their guard down."

 

Police said scams involving e-commerce, loans and crooks impersonating "China officials" are to blame for the overall crime rate rising by 3.2 per cent to 16,460 cases in the first six months of this year, from 15,949 cases in the same period last year.

 

In the same period this year, the number of such scams almost doubled.

 

In total, victims lost about $7.6 million. This was nearly three times the amount lost in the same period last year.

 

Ms Jolene Ong, chairman of Arise2care Community Services, said her debt management counsellors have had to handle 128 cases of people seeking help with loans so far this year, compared with 100 for the whole of last year.

 

Such people easily fall prey to loan scams after responding to loan offers on social media, the Internet and WhatsApp, she added.

 

Ms Ong cited the case of a man whose bank account was credited with $800 even though he did not seek a loan.

 

She said: "The man ended up paying $15,000. He was afraid the scammers would tell his wife about his previous dealings with loan sharks."

 

To tackle the problem and educate the public on how to spot scams, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) has, since 2014, been running an anti-scam campaign through television commercials, online publicity, lift decals in public housing estates and the television series Crimewatch.

 

It has also set up a helpline (1800-722-6688) and a website (scamalert.sg), which provide tips and warn people about more than 20 types of scams.

 

Psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng believes Singaporeans have a strong "sense of assumption".

 

"If a person calls and says he is an officer from Tanglin Police Division and it all sounds correct, most times, the victim would assume the caller is not a cheat. And that's when he falls for the scam," said Dr Lim.

 

Then there are those who become victims after seeing - and trusting - "friends" who endorse a product or like a certain investment on social media sites that could have been cloned.

 

"Most people do not realise that scammers take a lot of time to study and talk to you, and reveal certain false information about themselves to gain your trust," said Dr Lim.

 

To tackle the problem, police set up a Transnational Commercial Crime Task Force under the Commercial Affairs Department in October last year to investigate scams involving foreign crime syndicates. To date, it has seized more than $1.1 million and closed more than 400 bank accounts belonging to money mules involved in Internet love scams.

 

Staff of banks, remittance agencies and convenience stores have also been trained to detect customers who may be victims of love scams and credit-for-sex scams.

 

In March, two vigilant OCBC Bank staff helped prevent a customer from losing $2,500 to a love scam.

 

As a result of these efforts, the number of Internet love scams fell for the first time in five years.

 

In the first half of this year, there were 280 cases, compared with 344 in the same period last year. The number of credit-for-sex scams also fell, from 253 cases to 207 in the first half of this year.

 

But e-commerce scams, loan scams and scams involving the impersonation of China officials remain a concern.

 

Last month, NCPC chairman Gerald Singham said that in the months to come, the council will roll out a revamped campaign and intensify its outreach to the community.

 

Members of the public, too, are stepping up efforts in grassroots movements to raise awareness.

 

Mr Sim Kang Heong, co-founder of personal finance website DollarsandSense, started the Singapore Scams Discussion group on Facebook last year where members can share up-to-date information on scams currently occurring in Singapore. The group has nearly 1,700 members.

 

While public awareness must continue to be raised, Mr Singh believes a healthy dose of scepticism may just prevent a person from getting scammed.

 

"Clearly, most victims do not do enough research on dodgy investment schemes. But we should always ask, if a scheme is so good and lucrative, why isn't the whole of Singapore investing in it?"

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.