SINGAPORE: "I agreed to work with them out of shock," said Ms Zhou, a foreign student who was cheated of S$500,000 earlier this month by scammers pretending to be officials from China.
Police said in a news release on Friday (Sep 20) that they had received 92 reports of such scams between January and May 2019, with the money lost amounting to at least S$5.3 million.
Ms Zhou, a 21-year-old student from China who only wanted to be known by her surname, told reporters on Friday that she received a call on the morning of Sep 2 from a woman purported to be from international courier service DHL.
The caller, whom Ms Zhou noted had a Singaporean accent, addressed her by name and told her that a parcel sent in her name had been intercepted.
The parcel supposedly contained clothes, 21 fake passports and 11 credit cards.
Ms Zhou denied any connection to the parcel and the woman offered to help her make a police report, transferring the call to "the real 999".
The second person Ms Zhou spoke to said the call had to be transferred again to another police office because it was a foreign case.
A third person, a man, then told Ms Zhou to Google his phone number if she wanted to verify that he was indeed a Chinese police officer. The number checked out. It turned up in Google search results as the number to the Shanghai Pudong district police station.
This convinced Ms Zhou the call was authentic.
"He then sent over a picture of a police warrant card, which made me believe even more that the case was real," said Ms Zhou in Mandarin. "I started to feel scared."
The scammer requested a photo of her Chinese identity card and told her to check into a hotel so they could record a statement in private.
Ms Zhou followed the instructions and checked into a hotel in the Orchard Road area.
The recording of the statement took place over Facetime and Skype. There were two people talking to her but the screen on the other end remained blank the whole time.
The scammers revealed on the call that Ms Zhou was further implicated in a more serious case that was confidential so she could not let anyone else know.
They told her a man called Mr Sun was suing her for fraud and money laundering, and that her credit card had been frozen. When Ms Zhou went to the Watsons store to try and make a purchase, her credit card was unusable - like the scammers had said.
They then sent her pictures of elderly people committing suicide, said Ms Zhou. They told her these were victims of her crimes.
“They sent so many of these pictures,” said Ms Zhou, who broke down and started sobbing.
“I was traumatised and they made use of that to instill fear. They asked if I would cooperate with them or be arrested by international police. I agreed to work with them out of shock.”
To prove that she did not cheat the elderly of their money, they said she had to get some money transferred into her account. They would then access the money and "verify" it.
They taught her to obtain the money from her parents, who were living in China, using the reason that the Singapore government needed to verify a new financial statement showing that she had enough money for her education here.
From Sep 3 to Sep 7, a total amount of S$500,000 was taken by the scammers over five transactions.
Ms Zhou stayed in the hotel room the entire time and the video call with the scammers stayed connected round the clock.
They monitored her every movement, even asking that the camera be pointed to her bed when she was sleeping so they could make sure she was isolated and had not informed anyone of her whereabouts as they continued their "confidential investigations".
"I had to inform them when I wanted to get water and no matter what time of the day it was, someone would always reply," said Ms Zhou.
It was only on Sep 7 that police were alerted.
Ms Zhou's boyfriend, Mr Wang, said his girlfriend had told him she was staying at a friend's place to help with a bad break-up and asked him not to disturb her.
After asking around, Mr Wang, who had flown in from China earlier to be with Ms Zhou, found out that the friend Ms Zhou claimed to be staying with was actually in China.
When Ms Zhou remained uncontactable, Mr Wang filed a missing person report.
Police conducted investigations and eventually found Ms Zhou. It was only discovered later, after prolonged engagement with police, that she was a scam victim.
Police investigations are ongoing.
"IT FELT SO REAL"
Ms Zhou is just one out of many that have fallen victim to the increasingly sophisticated ways of China official impersonators.
“The scam felt so real because the scammers did all the documents so realistically. If the news comes out, I’m worried the scammers might devise other ways to scam others,” said Ms Zhou.
“It is very scary.”
SUPT Chew Jingwei, head of the Syndicated Fraud Commercial Affairs Department, said the number of such scams has become "worrisome".
“In the recent cases, especially at the first point of contact where they pose as a Singapore police officer or DHL staff, they will try to appear as local as possible,” he said.
“This is really to give credibility to the subsequent claims.”
SUPT Chew said that Ms Zhou's case is a variant of the usual phone impersonation scams, in which victims are instructed to isolate themselves.
“They know that the victims' financial means are limited. To get more money out of her, they have to bring in the parents.”
SUPT Chew said a similar case was reported in August. The scammers had got the victim, a 20-year-old Chinese student studying in Singapore, to tie himself up, record a video of himself and send to his parents.
The parents were asked for a ransom of 200,000 yuan (S$38,800).
“After a protracted police operation, this victim was found safe and sound at a hotel in Chinatown,” said SUPT Chew.
“They are vulnerable, and it is difficult for them to seek assistance, probably because they are not familiar with the procedures in Singapore,” he said.
In another variant of this scam, scammers would instruct victims to scan a QR code and transfer a sum of money using Bitcoin vending machines.
The scammers kept the victims on the phone to ensure that they did not have the opportunity to verify the authenticity of the call.
The police are advising members of the public to take precautions when they receive unsolicited calls, especially from unknown parties.
“Once you receive such a call, just hang up. That’s the easiest way to immunise yourself against such scams,” SUPT Chew advised.