SINGAPORE: There has been a re-emergence of the China officials impersonation scam this year, with victims cheated of at least S$4.8 million in 65 cases between January and April, police said in a news release on Monday (Jul 1).
Mr Soh, who wanted to be known only by his last name, would have been a victim had police officers not spotted him at a Bitcoin machine in Liang Court shopping mall, looking distressed while on the phone.
On May 31, the 33-year-old was at home when he received a call from a local phone number, with a woman purporting to be calling from Singtel.
According to Mr Soh, the caller addressed him by name and told him in Mandarin that his phone number had been stolen and misappropriated for illegal activities, and that his line will be terminated before noon.
She told him that officials from China will continue to investigate him, and he received a call about 20 minutes later from a phone number with a China calling code.
The scammer, who claimed to be a police officer, told Mr Soh that an unknown lady was arrested in China and that his contact number was found in her contact list, implicating him in her crimes.
To convince Mr Soh, the scammer sent a picture of a police warrant card via Whatsapp and said that the crime involved an unspecified amount of money being deposited into Mr Soh's account and that the Chinese police would have to check the cash.
A set of detailed instructions with pictures was sent to Mr Soh guiding him to transfer all his savings to China using a Bitcoin machine located in Liang Court.
If he did not do so, his mobile phone plan would be terminated and he would not be unable to return home to Malaysia, the scammer said. Mr Soh received a QR code that he was told to scan at the Bitcoin machine.
"I was afraid that I will be arrested in Singapore, and I was also afraid that I wouldn't be able to return home," recounted Mr Soh.
"At that point in time, I just wanted to prove my innocence and that I wasn't connected to the lady's crime."
Flustered, Mr Soh booked a taxi and travelled down to Liang Court from his home in Woodlands. Throughout the whole journey, he was on the phone with the 'Chinese official'.
When he arrived at the Bitcoin machine, the scammer warned Mr Soh about uniformed police officers at the scene. If sighted, Mr Soh was to update him accordingly.
Just as he was about to transfer his savings of S$1,200, Mr Soh was spotted by two officers from Orchard Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC). They managed to stop him in time and prevented him from making the transfer.
When asked about the tell-tale signs of someone being scammed, Inspector Chang Lian Seng, deputy-in-charge of Orchard NPC's Community Policing Unit, said Mr Soh's behaviour was out of the ordinary and that he was "on the phone at all times".
"He was behaving in a really panicky manner," said INSP Chang. "I don't think anyone would rush to withdraw money and head straight to the Bitcoin machine, so that was a very obvious tell-tale sign."
He also declined to reveal how often such operations are conducted, as scammers keep a close eye on the news.
"They asked him (Mr Soh) to avoid uniformed police officers, so they know that we actually deploy officers there," he added.
The Singapore Police Force (SPF) warn that the scammers have been modifying their mode of operations from using just bank transfers to using Bitcoin machines.
Mr Soh said he would not have picked up the call if the first phone call he received came from a foreign phone number.
"I picked it up because the first call was from a local number, and she said she was from Singtel and knew my name," he said. "I would have ignored the call if I saw a foreign number first."
The police are advising members of the public to take precautions when they receive unsolicited calls, especially from unknown parties:
- Don't panic - Ignore the calls and caller's instructions. No government agency will request for personal details or transfer of money over the phone or through automated voice machines. Call a trusted friend or talk to a relative before you act as you may be overwhelmed by emotion and err in your judgement.
- Don't believe - Scammers may use caller ID spoofing technology to mask the actual phone number and display a different number. Calls that appear to be from a local number may not actually be from Singapore. If you receive a suspicious call from a local number, hang up, wait a while, then call the number back to check the validity of the request.
- Don't give - Do not provide your name, identification number, passport details contact details, bank account or credit card details. Such information is useful to criminals.