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Hello, it's a scammer on the line: Robocalls on the rise with some targeting people working from home

SINGAPORE: Mr Jarvis Goh, a real estate agent, used to troll scammers who called him, pretending to fall for their tricks to get them to stay on the line - before giving them a scolding.

When he received pre-recorded robocalls, he would sometimes follow the instructions until a scammer picks up the call in person.

But he has stopped doing that as the calls are getting so frequent that he thinks his efforts are futile and takes up too much of his time. He simply hangs up when he realises it is a scam call. 

Mr Goh, who has three mobile phones for work and personal use, said recently, he has been getting one or two scam calls a week on all three phones. 

He has also noticed that the scammers are getting more sophisticated, pretending to be local agencies or organisations to hook their victims.

"Of course, it's very inconvenient ... it wastes your time and disrupts whatever you're doing," he said, adding that he knows of people who have been scammed. "It's very frustrating and (I) feel very pissed off."

READ: ‘It’s a judgment call’: How banks handle scam cases

Such robocalls may be familiar to many people, with a voice recording informing recipients that they need an update or repairs made to their Internet connection, or that they have a parcel that has been detained.

Police said that while they do not track scams by the mode of communication, some scams are typically perpetrated through calls such as the China officials impersonation scam, the tech support scam and the kidnap scam.


In the first six months of this year, the police received 224 reports about China officials impersonation scams compared to 121 cases in the same period in 2019.

For tech support scams, victims reported 313 cases between January and June, a 10-fold increase from the 30 cases in the same period last year, according to figures from the Singapore Police Force.

These numbers include scams using SMS and other modes of communication and not only phone calls.

As most scam calls are ignored, it is likely that only a small proportion are reported as crimes. 

File photo of a woman talking on the phone.

According to mid-year police statistics, the total amount cheated in tech support scams rose to S$15 million in the first half of the year compared to S$340,000 in the same period in 2019. The largest sum cheated in a single case in the first six months of this year was S$958,000.

In an advisory last month, Singtel said that scam calls impersonating the telco's customer and technical support officers have doubled to more than 5,000 calls in the year to date compared to the same period last year. 

"Of these, the most common are the tech support scams purporting the termination of Singtel services, which make up close to 10 per cent of all calls we have tracked," said a Singtel spokesperson.

Commentary: The year hackers and scammers exploited our COVID-19 fears to cheat us

In response, it launched a scam awareness campaign on Nov 20 called Jaga your data to warn customers about such scams.

It said that the tech support scam was a "common variant", with the scammer masquerading as Singtel's technical support and telling victims that their IP address had been "hacked".

The customers are told to download a software to enable remote control of their computer to solve the problem, and unwittingly hands over their Internet banking one-time passwords when asked.

"We often give our numbers away too readily and no thanks to data breaches, it is easy for bad actors to find our numbers easily on the Internet," said Mr Fernando Serto, head of security technology and strategy (Asia Pacific) from Akamai, a cybersecurity and cloud services firm.

"The simple act of answering a bad robocall will inform the machine that there’s someone on the receiving side who is a potential victim for fraudulent activities, setting them up to receive more of these phone scams down the line."


Mr Clement Lee, principal consulting security architect for APAC at Check Point Software Technologies said that he receives scam calls on a daily basis. 

There has been a rise in voice phishing calls in particular, targeting employees working from home to collect login credentials for corporate networks, which these scammers later monetise by selling the access to other groups, he said. 

Commentary: COVID-19 – as offices close, hackers work overtime

"It is likely that the callers are part of an organisation outsourced to make scam call, and they are paid by the number of calls they make. Automation through 'robocalls' helps them get paid with lesser manpower required," he said.

"As most of such call systems have sunken cost, there is little to no resistance to persist in the same approach. There is also a possibility that they are rewarded for just making those calls, regardless of outcomes."

Scammers will typically subscribe to VoIP service providers that allow sign-ups without stringent user verification procedure, feed in a script of phone numbers to be dialled, and then make robocalls to the phone numbers in an automated fashion, said Mr Chua Bo Si, Solutions Architect at HackerOne.

The malicious actors may tell the victim that something went wrong, such as their Internet connection is down or they were hacked. They may also pretend to be an authoritative figure such as a police officer, tax regulators or legal officers, requiring them to take certain action, or they may tell victims that they have won a lucky draw. 
"People should stay vigilant and try to identify these tell-tale signs," he said. "An authority body will not proactively call you to ask you to browse to a website and enter your credentials, nor will they ask you for your personal information," said Mr Chua.


Even though most of the scam calls originate from overseas, spoofing technology can mask the actual phone number and display a local number.

Since April, local telcos have worked with the Government to add a “+” prefix to incoming international calls, making scam calls easier to identify.

READ: International calls to have plus sign prefix to combat scam calls

Additionally, there are increasingly more tools available such as third-party software that allow users around the world to report unknown and suspicious callers, forming a database of malicious phone calls.

Police launched ScamShield last month, a scam filtering mobile app that identifies and filters out scam messages through the identification of keywords using artificial intelligence. 

The app, currently only available on iOS, blocks scam messages and calls from phone numbers that were used in other scam cases or reported by other ScamShield app users.

READ: New Inter-Ministry Committee to be set up to combat scams

In its mid-year crime statistics released in August, the police said that the 11.6 per cent increase in the total number of reported crime was primarily due to a rise in scam cases.

Online scams saw a significant increase as people stayed home and carried out more online transactions due to the COVID-19 situation.

E-commerce scams, social media impersonation scams, loan scams and banking-related phishing scams made up 71 per cent of the top 10 scam types reported in the first half of 2020.

Like phone scams, online crimes are particularly challenging to solve because of their borderless nature. 

A significant proportion of scams is committed remotely by foreign syndicates which continually find new methods to exploit and prey on the vulnerabilities of potential victims, police said.

Source: CNA/hm(gs)


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