SINGAPORE: Freelance artiste Rosie (not her real name), 70, had been booked for a number of singing and acting gigs, and she wasn’t shy posting about it on Facebook.
So when someone she described as a young, good-looking man sent her a friend request on Facebook early last year, she didn’t think twice about accepting.
“When I was young I was in love with my husband, but the love has already gone,” said Rosie, who has a 40-year-old son with her odd job worker husband, whom she lives with in a three-room flat.
Every few days, Rosie chatted over the phone with the man, who claimed to be Malaysian but used a UK number and said he was based in Europe. His supposed photo, seen by reporters, made him look like a dashing, fair-skinned Indonesian celebrity.
The man swooned over her singing and acting, calling her a “talented lady” who didn’t look her age. He called her honey, darling and sayang. Naturally, Rosie was enamoured. “I’m happy being with a young man like him,” she said. “He’s so polite.”
The sweet conversations continued for a year, then the scam kicked in.
The man sent her a photo of a child in a hospital, hooked up with wires and needles. “I need a small amount for the medical treatment,” the man told her, saying that it was for a friend. The amount was S$10,000. “His life is in your hands,” the man said.
The fact that Rosie was already too deep in what she called her “fantasy”, coupled with a genuine guilt and concern for the child’s well-being, compelled her.
Because of her bank’s daily limit, she transferred S$2,000 to a Malaysian account each day for four days. She only had S$1,500 left, so she pawned her jewellery before wiring the remainder. She would never see the money again.
However, it didn’t end there. When Rosie’s savings were sucked dry, she was duped into becoming a money mule. She received close to S$20,000 from unknown sources, later revealed to be victims of the same syndicate, and passed it on to various Malaysian accounts.
Rosie was about to transfer another S$9,000 to the man when one of the victims reported the scam to the police, who then froze Rosie’s bank account. When the man realised that she had stopped sending money over, he threatened to publicise their affair on social media.
Rosie’s case is a classic ploy used in Internet love scams, which hit a new high last year. Cases increased by 30 per cent, from 635 in 2016 to 825 in 2017. The total amount cheated also rose by 54 per cent, from about S$24 million to about S$37 million over the same period.
With that, the police last October formed the Transnational Commercial Crime Task Force (TCTF), a crack squad comprising six investigation officers (IO) from the six land divisions, to investigate Internet love scams.
The TCTF consolidates cases at the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) to intercept cash transfers from victims and mules quicker. It also enables authorities, when investigating foreign syndicates, to share information with foreign counterparts faster.
The police revealed on Monday (Mar 26) that it will from Apr 1 add six officers to the TCTF to investigate more types of transnational fraud, like impersonation scams.
This comes as the TCTF saw a drop in reported cases after investigating more than 200 money mules and seizing at least S$1 million. There were 41 cases in February compared to 102 last September, just before the TCTF was formed.
HOW INTERNET LOVE SCAMS WORK
According to the head of CAD’s syndicated fraud branch Superintendent of Police (Supt) Chew Jingwei, syndicates that operate Internet love scams are based overseas, largely in Malaysia.
“From our intelligence, a lot of these scam syndicates are actually African gangs based in Malaysia,” he said.
These syndicates build close-knit relationships with victims before promising them lavish gifts, often with the catch that they have to pay courier fees or customs taxes. Some victims are even conned into sending their ATM cards abroad.
The victims are then asked to transfer the cash to a money mule, who passes it on to the syndicates for a cut of the transaction. When victims run out of cash, syndicates can also turn them into mules by asking them to open bank accounts for “legal fees”.
Syndicates make use of money mules to make it more difficult for them to be traced, said Assistant Superintendent of Police Kristian Kirkwood, a TCTF IO. Two-thirds of Internet love scam cases involve mules, Supt Chew said, adding that many of them are women.
“When a money mule is being featured, we work with the banks very quickly to freeze the accounts and detain the mule involved,” Supt Chew added. “The strategy for us is to stem the flow of money to the syndicates and recover as much as possible for the victims.”
But the TCTF also faces challenges in the form of victims who refuse to hand over their chat logs. Some even try to drop the investigation after lodging a report, believing that their “lover” is real.
In Rosie’s case, the Attorney-General’s Chambers issued her with an advisory to be more vigilant after she was found to have been “unwittingly” recruited. The TCTF managed to retrieve the S$9,000, but not the rest of the cash. The man remains at large.
Meanwhile, Rosie says she now feels hatred for the man who seduced her online. “I was naive,” she added. “I got carried away with his words.” Her family was initially furious, but they have forgiven her.
Supt Chew stressed that while there has been a drop in cases, the police are “not happy”.
“If the public thinks twice before transferring money to someone they do not know and taking instructions from someone they’ve never met before, these scams can stop,” he said.