Why scam cases continue to rise and what is being done about them

Why scam cases continue to rise and what is being done about them

Scam illustration
An illustration based on an actual scam. (Image: SPF)

SINGAPORE: Scam cases surged 54 per cent, accounting for 27 per cent of overall crime in 2019, statistics released by the police on Wednesday (Jan 5) showed.

A total of 9,502 scams were reported in 2019, compared to 6,189 cases the previous year.

Annual crime data for 2018 also showed that the number of crime cases 2018 had increased by 1.4 per cent from 2017 because of a surge in scams.

Police said more money was lost to scammers in 2019. The total amount cheated in the top 10 types of scams increased by 16 per cent to S$168 million, from S$145 million in 2018.

Among the top 10 scam types, e-commerce scams, loan scams and credit-for-sex scams are of “particular concern”, police said, pointing out that they made up 60 per cent of the scams. 

READ: Crime up 7% in first half of 2019, mainly due to rise in scam cases - police 

READ: Crime reports up in 2018 due to surge in scam cases: Police

While the police said it has continued to educate the public on scams through online campaigns, roadshows and community volunteers, it stressed that family members can play a part by preventing “someone they know from falling victim to crime and prevent losses”.

TRICKS SCAMMERS USE

This is important as scammers continue to make their ploys extremely realistic, with tricks like showing victims a warehouse full of cash, using video calls to reassure them, and convincing them that foreign authorities were trying to get them out of trouble.

A police psychologist said scammers use techniques common in some of the best advertisements to ensnare their victims. Some victims have fallen for scams even after seeing anti-scam advisories, police said, while others remain unconvinced even when officers try to intervene.

top 10 scam types 2019
The top 10 scam types in 2019. (Source: SPF)

In one case last October, police said a bank alerted it to a possible scam case after an 80-year-old woman withdrew S$800,000 in cash – with further withdrawals scheduled – without giving a reason.

Upon further investigations, police discovered that the wealthy woman had fallen for a China officials impersonation scam. The woman turned away police officers in uniform when approached, believing that they were “corrupted”. Her daughter was too afraid to intervene, while her husband believed she was “too smart” to be a victim of scam.

The breakthrough came when police arrested three runners related to the scam. Even when the woman went to a police station to record her statement, she still had trouble believing that the police officers were real. By then, the woman had lost more than S$3.6 million.

E-COMMERCE SCAMS MOST COMMON

Police said e-commerce scams remain the most common in Singapore, with a 30 per cent increase in cases from 2018. “The common transactions involved sales of electronic products and tickets to events and attractions, such as tickets for Universal Studios Singapore,” it added.

In January, scam victim Tom (not his real name) received a message on Instagram requesting his phone number for an ongoing Lazada campaign from someone he thought was his female friend. 

READ: Police warn of text messages sent by scammers pretending to be from CID

Tom, a 23-year-old chef, soon received a text message containing a Lazada code. The friend asked him to send her the code, and told him later that he had won S$1,000. The friend then asked him to send a photo of his credit card and one-time password via Instagram.

After Tom realised that S$400 had been deducted from his card, he went back to his messages and discovered that someone had impersonated his friend. The person used an Instagram profile name and messaging style that was almost identical to his friend, with “quite a few” identical pictures uploaded.

“You don’t think you’ll be a victim of scam, you only hear stories,” he said, admitting that was not suspicious of his friend’s conversation or profile as they have previously chatted on WhatsApp. “It’s quite scary knowing that they know who your friends are.”

Tom believes his friend was targeted as she is a fashion model with a popular following online. He stated that he’s now more aware and is wary of giving anyone his card details. 

READ: At least S$38 million lost to impersonation scams in 2019: Shanmugam

Police said scams on digital platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Shopee and Lazada went up, although Carousell saw a decrease.

Carousell’s introduction of an escrow payment system, which holds the payment until both the buyer and seller acknowledge the transaction, helped reduce the risk of scams on the platform, police said.

top 5 digital platforms used in e-commerce scams
Carousell remains the most common platform used in e-commerce scams. (Graphic: SPF)

Loan scams and credit-for-sex scams also saw “significant increases” in 2019, police stated. For the latter, it said Alipay and iTunes cards remain the more common platforms used for money transfers.

“Loan scams and credit-for-sex scams are associated with unlawful activities such as unlicensed moneylending and vice,” it added.

WHAT IS BEING DONE?

The police set up an Anti-Scam Centre last June to disrupt scam operations and reduce monetary losses by working with business operators, including financial institutions, telecommunication companies and digital platform owners.

Since its formation, the centre has received 3,312 scam reports involving losses of S$10.6 million. Police said it has frozen 2,600 bank accounts and recovered 35 per cent of the amount scammed, or about S$3.7 million. 

READ: Singapore police’s new anti-scam centre wants to hit scammers where it hurts

Key to this is the centre’s ability to work with banks to freeze accounts suspected to be involved in scam within a few days. Previously, this could take as long as two weeks with multiple orders sent via fax or snail mail.

The centre also worked with the Association of Banks to shorten the time banks need to provide PayNow – one platform used by scammers – transaction details to the police, from weeks to just a few days. Police said this increases chances of recovering the money.

On the ground, police said it conducted 85 operations targeting local e-commerce scammers, resulting in the arrest of 112 individuals responsible for 1,223 of such cases. 

READ: Internet love scams: ‘I got carried away with his words’ says victim as police strengthen task force

It said it will also continue to work closely with foreign law enforcement counterparts to crack down on foreign syndicates remotely committing online crimes targeting Singaporeans.

Last November, the Commercial Affairs Department worked with counterparts in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau to take down a transnational love scam syndicate based in Malaysia. Three Nigerian and 15 Malaysian scammers were arrested.

Police said the syndicate is believed to be involved in at least 139 cases of Internet love scams reported in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau, involving losses of about S$5.8 million. 

WHY DO PEOPLE KEEP FALLING FOR IT?

Despite the measures, police principal psychologist Carolyn Misir said people can still fall for scams because they don’t start their day thinking something bad will happen.

She said this phenomenon, called the optimism bias, is good for daily life but increases vulnerability to scams. “Most of us don’t exist with that heightened vigilance,” she said. “Scammers prey on this.” 

READ: Fake 'Chinese officials' cheat victims of S$10.8 million in last 4 months

According to Ms Misir, scammers also use psychological techniques like social proof, reciprocity and threats to get what they need.

For instance, scammers put themselves on speakerphone to make it sound like they are pleading with a senior official to help other individuals avoid getting arrested. The victim would then get “proof” that others are in the same situation, making the scam more realistic.

With that, the victim would also be more willing to give something in return for the help being offered. This is when the scammer would start to make threats, often putting time pressure on a victim to report his whereabouts and transfer cash or risk getting arrested.

Once a victim has started the cash transfers, Ms Misir said he would likely keep doing it because he’s already gone that far and would want to see the end result. Shame would also prevent him from confiding in friends and family. 

READ: Man arrested in cheating scam involving electronic products

Ms Misir advised victims stuck in the cycle to take a “cognitive break” by not making a decision before the scammer’s deadline. Knowing how the law works would help too, she said.

“Many scammers are taking advantage of the anonymity of the Internet and social media to threaten and target unsuspecting victims,” Commercial Affairs Department director David Chew said.

“Many of these scams originate from foreign jurisdictions and we see a lot of the victims’ monies leaving Singapore.”

The police said it is often difficult to recover money that has been transferred to scammers, adding that the public should “exercise caution” when making online transactions.

Source: CNA/jt

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