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Singapore

‘I got scammed’: Migrant workers lost S$24.9 million to scammers last year

To prevent migrant workers from falling prey to scams, the police and non-government organisations have been conducting engagement sessions at dormitories and campaigns at popular hangout places like Little India.

SINGAPORE: After earning some money from boosting sales on a selling app, a migrant worker, who gave his name as “Mohammad”, hoped he could bring in even more income from the platform to supplement his wages.

Instead, the construction supervisor lost S$3,900 to scammers. 

“We had missions to complete - 20 boosts. Once we get the 20 boosts, we get the commission. After I had done one practice boosting, I earned … S$200 or S$400, I can't remember exactly,” the 32-year-old said.

“After that when I earn, it's like I got hope maybe in the next one I can earn again," he added. "(But) I got scammed.”

As reports of scams continue to hit record levels, migrant workers in Singapore have not been spared. They lost S$24.9 million to scams last year, a 5.5-fold increase from 2019.

MIGRANT WORKERS MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO SCAMS

The promise of a quick buck has been the weapon of choice for scammers targeting migrant workers and their eagerness to supplement their meagre incomes.

Ms Dipa Swaminathan, the founder of charity ItsRainingRaincoats, said that migrant workers are more vulnerable as they tend to be “more gullible than the average person” due to their trusting nature and grim working conditions.

“Workers are not paid very much … their needs are so much more and they often find themselves in dire positions, so it’s usually too much of a temptation for them to pass when they see something that they think could be a way out for them,” she said.

“The language barrier plays a part as well and the fact that they tend to be more trusting. They may not be as questioning as the rest of us. That makes them an easy target,” she added.

Ms Dipa recalled a victim who even sold his wife’s jewellery for money to pay for a scam.

She explained that, having been a scam victim herself, scammers are becoming more sophisticated and use psychoanalytical tools to prey in such a way that victims do not realise they are falling for a scam.

As a migrant worker earns an average of just S$450 a month, Ms Dipa said that the amount lost to scammers reflects the number of workers who have been scammed.

“You could make S$100,000 targeting one high net worth individual but you could also do that targeting 100 migrant workers, which might be easier. So I think they will continue to remain a very attractive target for scammers,” she said.

POLICE, NGOS INCREASING ENGAGEMENT

To prevent migrant workers from falling for scams, the police and non-government organisations (NGOs) have been conducting engagement sessions in dormitories and campaigns at popular hangout places like Little India.

For example, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) worked with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in April this year to conduct an outreach programme for workers at Terusan Recreation Centre. Officers engaged workers at a police booth and handed out advisories in their native languages.

In addition to such outreach initiatives are bi-monthly newsletters, anti-scam flyers and videos on social media.

“As a part of our investigation procedure, we interview (migrant workers who have fallen victim) to establish how scams were committed as well as share advisories on how they can avoid falling prey to scam cases,” said senior investigation officer Sheik Ismail Bin Mohamed Ashad from the SPF’s Anti-Scam Command. 

He also warned that a tell-tale sign of workers being scammed is when they approach their employers for extra allowances or salary advances.

MIGRANT WORKERS RELUCTANT TO TALK TO POLICE

However, NGOs said that migrant workers are often hesitant about speaking to the police or figures of authority, and instead, would rather approach an agency or a volunteer whom they trust.

While the agencies try to help, they are often not equipped to handle scam queries or reports, and still have to refer the workers to the police at the end of the day. Instead, they try to establish a bridge between the workers and the police.

“We bring a softer approach to these workers,” said Mr Joshua Sham Lechemanam, deputy executive director of the Migrant Workers' Centre.

“We let them know that these people (the police) are here to let you know that this is happening … we also give them real life scenarios such as the cases that SPF has recently encountered. We let them know that when in doubt, always check with authorities,” he said.

While Ms Dipa’s agency has convinced some of these victims to make police reports, she said it is very difficult to recover money once it has been transferred to the scammers.

“The best we can do is to try to recover what some of them have lost. We try to fundraise a bit for that worker so he doesn’t feel like his entire life savings have been lost in a scam,” she said.

MIGRANT WORKERS AFRAID TO SPEAK UP

Migrant workers are also generally afraid to speak up as they fear losing their jobs, or have their work permits revoked - all this despite them being the victims of scams, said Ms Dipa.

“I think creating a framework where they can speak up and share experiences - maybe even a migrant worker support group - without any external intervention … would be helpful I feel,” she said.

“Among each other, they can share instances and examples of how they've been scammed, so that they become aware that this is increasingly happening to all of them. And then each one becomes a little bit more vigilant."

She is also suggesting setting up a platform for workers to check if something is genuine, such as a hotline.

Mr Joshua said he believes the initiatives are working, and that more could have been lost if not for them.

“There’s no way to prevent this 100 per cent, but what we can do is to create as much awareness as we can among workers to refrain from such activities,” he said.

“Scammers will always look for those workers who have not been enlightened or find more creative ways of reaching victims. So it’s always a cat and mouse game, and I think the chase will always be on and we should just keep doing what we do,” he added.

The police are also urging migrant workers to use its ScamShield app, in addition to working with MOM to help produce advisories in the native languages of their colleagues.

“Combating scams is a community effort, and we want all readers to spread the word around - ignore calls requesting for personal information and passwords and download the ScamShield app to guard against scams,” said Mr Sheik Ismail.

Source: CNA/dn(fk)(sn)
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