SINGAPORE: Loan sharks are now shifting their harassment tactics. Instead of damaging property by scribbling O$P$ in red paint on walls, they are now harassing the public via SMS and WhatsApp messages, police said on Thursday (Jun 7).
"Through the method, the loan sharks are able to target larger groups of people,” they said.
According to the police, the number of harassment cases which do not involve property damage has gone up 17.5 per cent to 942 cases in the first four months of this year compared to the same period last year.
This trend was also observed in 2017, when cases without damage to property increased by 33.8 per cent to 2,783 cases as compared to the year before.
In all, unlicensed moneylending-related harassment cases increased by 12.3 per cent to 3,806 cases last year. This is “largely driven by the cases without damage to property”, police said.
Besides targeting larger groups of people, the use of technology allows loan shark syndicates to harass debtors at a quicker pace, head of the Unlicensed Moneylending Strikeforce Superintendent (Supt) Han Teck Kwong said.
"Of course, the intensity and seriousness of the harassment messages will be there," he added.
Supt Han said these messages might be accompanied by pictures or videos of homes being set on fire or their gates chained by the harassers.
These messages can also progress to physical threats made against family members and employers, he added. "Their business model thrives on fear, so in order to compel victims to pay up, they’ll try all means."
To lure victims in the first instance, Supt Han said the loan sharks send out unsolicited advertisements to randomly generated numbers.
Once the debtor engages an unlicensed moneylending service, his number will be circulated to other loan sharks, Supt Han added. This results in a vicious cycle of borrowing money from other loan sharks to pay off existing debts.
The police advised those who receive SMSes or WhatsApp messages from loan sharks not to reply or interact with the sender. The public should also “report the number as spam and block the number using readily available spam filter applications”.
They can also notify the police via the i-Witness portal or report loansharking activities anonymously through the X-Ah-Long hotline at 1800-924-5664.
TACKLING THE ISSUE
In the bigger picture, the public should not borrow from unlicensed moneylenders and stop getting involved with unlicensed moneylending activities, the police urged. “The police will continue to work closely with authorities such as the Info-communications Media Development Authority to deter these harassment acts,” it said.
The police said it is also working with other relevant agencies and telecommunication companies, but are unable to reveal more details due to operational considerations.
When asked about potential measures like blocking mobile numbers belonging to loan sharks, the police said they will "work closely with relevant stakeholders to make it harder for unlicensed moneylending harassers to conduct non-damage and non-confrontational tactics".
"We want to make it harder and to disrupt the operations of unlicensed moneylenders," Supt Han explained.
What if loan sharks use number spoofing or encrypted WhatsApp messages to avoid detection?
"We are exploring all angles to work with all agencies involved to try to detect and prevent such technology from being used," Supt Han said. "There are challenges, but we will ensure we work continuously with the relevant agencies to tackle the issue."
Under the Moneylenders Act, first-time offenders found guilty of carrying out business as an unlicensed moneylender or assisting in the business of unlicensed moneylending face a fine of between S$30,000 and S$300,000, a jail term of up to four years, and six strokes of the cane.
Also under the Act, first-time offenders found guilty of committing loanshark harassment may be jailed up to five years, receive three to six strokes of the cane, as well as a fine of between S$5,000 and S$50,000.
Last month, the police arrested 131 suspects believed to be involved in loan-sharking activities following a four-day operation. Police said three of them allegedly carried out acts of harassment by splashing paint and scrawling graffiti on walls.
"I also urge all members of the public, including foreign domestic workers, not to borrow from loan sharks and to desist from all unlicensed moneylending activities and involvement," Supt Han said.