SINGAPORE: It was a quiet Friday afternoon.
As the customer service manager of OCBC's Bedok branch, Ms Sabrina Lye was occupied with her daily tasks of handling transactions and walk-in customer requests. She had no inkling that her day was about to become a lot busier.
Between 2pm and 3pm, a middle-aged man walked into the branch and filled out a telegraphic transfer form. Usually, the bank staff would help to process the form - but in this case, the teller noticed something amiss.
The man had filled out a form to transfer US$4,800 (S$6,512) as a processing fee to receive US$65 million (about S$88 million) - an inheritance from a recently deceased American.
Once alerted, Ms Lye rushed to the banking hall to speak to the man.
It had been the inheritance fund and the customers’ transaction pattern that set their alarm bells off, said Ms Lye, a “telltale sign” that they could be dealing with a scam.
“Normally (for) the customer, we check the profile, the transaction pattern,” she said, as most victims of scams would be transferring funds overseas, or to a certain country, for the first time.
Even after talking to the man for half an hour, he was unconvinced. He even told Ms Lye that he would come back with document proof. “So after that we said, we’re not going to do it for you. We are quite direct,” said Ms Lye.
“Immediately (after he left), we sent out emails to broadcast to the whole branch network, and also to the fraud risk management (team),” she said, as she wanted to keep the other OCBC branches informed of a potential scam case.
And sure enough, the next day, man made his way to the Marine Parade branch, in the hope that they would perform the transaction for him instead.
This time, it was Ms Kristie Chiang who attended to him as the customer service manager of the Marine Parade branch. She examined his documents and found that most of them were certificates of guarantee and email correspondence from the US federal bank.
“So from all the correspondence I saw, I told the customer, don't you find that this correspondence is actually fake? If the person is working in the US Federal Bank, why is he using a Yahoo email instead of the corporate email?” she said.
The customer said that he too had found it suspicious, but his contact said that they could not use their corporate email as they were experiencing problems.
The lie was convincing as the contact used the name of a real person who had left behind a US$65 million estate, said Ms Chiang.
“So I asked him, what makes you think this person will leave this much money to you? He said that it was a close friend of his grandfather - but the person who died was in the US, his grandfather is in Indonesia, and has passed on. So there are a lot of suspicious points already.”
Now sure that she was facing a scam case, Ms Chiang told the customer in no uncertain terms that none of this was true.
And even then, the customer still insisted on sending the money. “This US$4,800 he said, never mind, just send. If let’s say he cannot get the US$65 million, he will take it as a loss,” she said.
It took two to three hours before the man finally accepted that he was likely to be a victim of a scam.
TELLTALE SIGNS OF A SCAM
In Oct, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said in Parliament that scam cases for the first eight months of the year doubled compared to the same period last year, while the amount lost rose by nearly 72 per cent.
The most common scam crimes are e-commerce scams, followed by social media impersonation scams and loan scams, he added.
And banks play a key role in detecting and foiling scams. Those operating in Singapore work with the police's anti-scam centre, which investigates scam-related crimes and disrupt fraudsters' operations.
The banks include DBS, OCBC, UOB, ANZ, CIMB, HSBC, Maybank, Citibank, the Bank of China and Standard Chartered bank.
On their websites, banks often provide information on scams and tips for their customers to protect themselves.
HSBC Safeguard is an initiative by the bank to protect clients from financial crimes and fraud. For DBS customers, they have an option to report scams on its website. The bank also introduced an e-learning course to teach its staff how to interact with customers with dementia and protect them from financial neglect and exploitation.
Other than tips and information on the different types of scams, Standard Chartered's website said that it is using the "best of machine-learning" and its own expertise to develop systems and processes to protect clients.
At OCBC, those on the front desk do their best to foil scams before customers fall prey to them, by spotting several telltale signs.
In this case, Ms Chiang suspected it was a scam after learning about the US$65 million that the man expected to receive. Upon probing, she realised that the details in the documents, including the signature of the Federal Bank President, did not add up, which only confirmed her suspicions.
But there are other signs. For instance, if a customer refuses to share details, or if they seem like they are in a hurry and avoid eye contact, trying to end the transaction as soon as possible - all those are possible indicators that the person has fallen victim to a scam.
It’s actually not easy to tell, said Ms Chiang. “Sometimes it may just seem like a normal transaction.”
It’s not easily detected unless the staff ask for further details, she said, adding that experience and information sharing across the different branches helps.
In one parcel scam case last year, it was information shared from the head office that helped to foil the scammers.
“At that time, I think the parcel scam was quite common, because our head office does share with us and communicate with us all the recent scams and all that. So it actually rang a bell to the teller who attended to the customer … because (the) customer was expecting to receive a parcel,” she said.
For this case, the customer had been asked to remit S$800 to receive a parcel of several iPhones and other accessories.
Love scams are also common. Ms Lye recalled one case late last year, where an old lady in her 70s wanted to send S$4,000 overseas.
“I see the details, the beneficiary details and the beneficiary name, and also the bank name. So I feel that it’s quite fishy. So maybe something's unusual,” she said.
She approached the customer to ask her why she wanted to transfer money to the US for a laboratory research fund to a younger “high profile” man with a doctorate. Ms Lye had also checked the transaction history and noted that it was the customer’s first time sending money in this manner.
After probing, she learned that they had become acquainted through Facebook and had been exchanging love messages.
“She just wanted to try to help him - even if she lost this S$4,000, she’s prepared to lose it,” said Ms Lye. “So I said, even one dollar … is also considered too much money because you should not send any money.”
ONCE MONEY HAS LEFT YOUR ACCOUNT, THE CHANCES OF RECOVERY ARE LOW
On the back end, the fraud risk management team helps to monitor and handle cases of fraud, including scams.
OCBC’s head of group corporate security, Francisco John Celio, heads the fraud risk management team, among other teams. The team’s duties include educating frontline staff on current scams and indicators to look out for and to monitor customer transactions to look out for suspicious activity.
“The biggest challenge is actually the customers themselves,” said Mr Celio, as fraudsters often dupe customers into releasing control of their accounts or conducting the transactions themselves.
It is important to educate customers on what they can do to protect themselves, as scammers often use their “human frailty” to “exploit and social engineer” them. They are usually coerced or manipulated and coached what to say to the bank and police officers, he said.
On the protocol for suspected scam cases, Mr Celio said: “It’s a judgment call”.
Where “sufficient indicators” point to it, the bank may make a decision to recall the funds, he said. The bank could also block customers from transferring the money.
Sometimes, the bank could even make the decision to simply advise and then disengage, allowing the customer to make the transaction, he added.
But the bottom line is, once the transactions have been made, once the money has left the customer’s account, the possibility of recovery is “actually very low”, said Mr Celio.
His advice on avoiding scams?
“As long as I get a call or email from somebody I don’t know, I just hang up,” he said. Don’t give out money easily to people you meet online, don’t accept deals that seem “too good to be true” unless you can verify them independently.
And finally, “don’t ever reveal your security credentials”, he said, and pay attention to any alert messages from the bank.
“Sometimes they receive the alert messages, then they ignore it. And by the time they come back to us, it will be too late. Like I said, once the money has left the account, the chances of getting your money back starts to fall. The longer you wait, the lower the chances are.
“So when you see an SMS, you really feel you didn’t do it, quickly pick up the phone, give us a call, and we’ll try our best to get it back for you. But again, no promises,” he said.