SINGAPORE: One of the first men to be charged over mask scams that proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic was sentenced to three years and two months' jail on Monday (Jul 27).
Daryl Cheong Zhi Yong, 29, admitted to cheating eight victims out of S$205,260, most of which were for surgical face masks he never delivered.
The biggest loss of S$175,000 was to a man who placed that amount as a deposit for masks, intending to supply them to a company.
Cheong pleaded guilty to six charges of cheating, as well as concealing and converting criminal proceeds. Another 10 charges were taken into consideration for sentencing.
The prosecution said Cheong, who was an odd job worker at the time, embarked on "a devious cheating spree" in February 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding globally.
He exploited the surge in demand for surgical face masks by posting advertisements on e-commerce platform Carousell and lied to multiple victims that he had the masks for sale.
He cheated most of his victims into paying him deposits for the masks, breaking contact with them once he had the money and never delivering the equipment.
Instead, he hid his criminal proceeds by passing them to his friend and one of his girlfriends, and used some of the money to buy gold jewellery and luxury watches.
THE S$175,000 SCAM
Sometime in early February, victim Kelvin Tay came to know that industrial and consumer safety equipment company QMT was sourcing for distributors to supply large quantities of face masks.
The self-employed Mr Tay decided to supply the masks to QMT and began sourcing for suppliers. He came across Cheong's Carousell account under the name lester1235, which was offering face masks for sale.
Cheong lied to Mr Tay that he had a ready supply of masks from Malaysia to supply, adding that Mr Tay's order was one of five large orders Cheong was handling.
Mr Tay asked to settle payment in cash upon delivery, but Cheong insisted on an upfront cash deposit.
After discussions, Mr Tay agreed to pay S$400,000 for 500 cartons of surgical face masks and to pay S$175,000 as a cash deposit upfront.
Mr Tay and his wife met Cheong at Jurong Point on Feb 13 and withdrew S$175,000 in S$1,000 bills before handing them over to Cheong.
He asked Cheong for his particulars, but Cheong gave an expired Malaysian driving licence belong to another person and passed it off as his own.
Mr Tay took a photo of this licence but later took a closer look and realised that the surname did not match the name Cheong had given him.
Mr Tay was to collect the masks the next day, but Cheong became uncontactable and Mr Tay lodged a police report.
Before meeting Mr Tay, Cheong told his close friend Lim Poh Yen and one of his girlfriends, Ms Goh Li En, that he expected to close a deal for 500 cartons of face masks.
He told Ms Lim that he would give her S$25,000 if the deal was successful. After collecting S$175,000 from Mr Tay, Cheong met up with Ms Lim and Ms Goh and showed them the S$1,000 bills.
He passed S$30,000 to Ms Lim and S$106,000 to Ms Goh for safekeeping, and bought a Rolex at a pawnshop for S$7,080 using some of the remaining cash.
Together with Ms Lim and Ms Goh, Cheong headed to a jewellery shop and bought several gold rings, necklaces and other precious items for S$9,189 using the criminal proceeds. He gave a gold ring and bangle to Ms Lim, and a gold ring and gold necklace to Ms Goh.
Cheong cheated several other victims of cash for face masks he never delivered, using another one of his girlfriends' bank account for at least one of the scams. He was also involved in a separate telco scam, until he was arrested on Feb 14.
He told the police in three statements that he had an Indonesian supplier who would give him masks, and claimed that he had given the bulk of the cash received from Mr Tay to an unknown individual who worked for the purported Indonesian supplier.
However, when confronted with evidence of the money and property seized by the police, Cheong admitted that he never had such a supplier, and that he had never made any arrangements to fulfil Mr Tay's order.
The police seized several items in their investigations including the cash and jewellery from Ms Lim and Ms Goh, as well as about S$9,000 in cash from Cheong, along with gold jewellery and a Rolex watch.
AN AUDACIOUS ENTERPRISE: PROSECUTION
The prosecution asked for three years and two months' jail, saying that Cheong had set out on "an audacious enterprise" that took advantage of the "prevailing climate of fear" surrounding the emerging pandemic.
"At the time, there was a ballooning demand for surgical face masks as people worried for their personal health and safety. The accused exploited the trust of members of the public and capitalised on their vulnerabilities, by deceiving them into believing that he was able to deliver surgical face masks to them," said Deputy Public Prosecutor Michelle Tay.
"He took advantage of the victims’ urgent need and caught them off guard. He then collected an upfront deposit from them and made off with his windfall. Such malicious and opportunistic behaviour, in the midst of a national and global health crisis, is particularly heinous and must be strongly deterred."
Cheong has not shown genuine remorse, making no restitution to the victims. A large proportion of cash and jewellery was recovered, but only through the efforts of the police, she said.
He was also not forthcoming during police investigations, "spinning a fairy tale that he ran a genuine business" and was in contact with a legitimate supplier in Indonesia. He also lied that he did not know where the criminal proceeds were.
Cheong also has previous related convictions, being given a fine in 2015 for cheating and given jail and caning for extortion and theft in 2017.
Instead of being deterred, his offending behaviour escalated in number and in sophistication, said Ms Tay.
Cheong, who has been remanded since Feb 15, had tried telling the court in previous hearings that he had himself been a victim of cheating.
He also argued in vain to have his bail amounts adjusted so he could be released and care for his mother during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For cheating, he could have been jailed for up to 10 years and fined. For concealing or converting criminal proceeds, he could have been jailed for up to 10 years, fined up to S$500,000, or both.