Singapore police’s new anti-scam centre wants to hit scammers where it hurts
One of its weapons is partnering local banks to freeze scam-related accounts within days of being notified, thus preventing the perpetrators to get their hands on the money, police say.
SINGAPORE: Scammers, beware. That’s the message the Singapore Police Force (SPF) wants to convey as it introduced new tools such as a new dedicated “nerve centre” for scam-related crimes, as well as partnering industry players to more effectively stop stolen money from falling into the perpetrators’ hands.
On Friday (Aug 30), the police revealed that the new Anti-Scam Centre (ASC) was set up within the Commercial Affairs Department on Jun 18 this year and its focus is to disrupt scammers’ operations and help mitigate victims’ losses.
The setting up of the new centre is timely given that scams, particularly e-commerce and loan scams, continue to rise despite increased efforts to enforce and educate the public on such operations.
In the latest mid-year crime statistics for 2019, scams were a primary cause for the increase in overall crime in Singapore. E-commerce scams jumped from 1,013 in the first six months of 2018 to 1,435 during the same period this year and resulted in victims being cheated of S$1.2 million in total.
Similarly, loan scams more than doubled from 315 to 692 cases over the same time-frame, and these resulted in victims losing at least S$2.2 million, the figures showed.
Credit-for-sex and Internet love scams came in at third and fourth in terms of the number of reported cases, but the monetary losses are similar if not more than the previous two types of scams.
Internet love scams, in particular, resulted in losses of at least S$17.1 million, which is a jump from S$11.7 million during the same period last year. The largest amount cheated in a single case under this category amounted to more than S$2.4 million, police figures showed.
To better tackle the increasing numbers of such scams, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) DSP Lim Hao Jun said during a press briefing that the ASC is collaborating with the three local banks - DBS Bank, United Overseas Bank (UOB) and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) - to come up with an “arsenal of weapons” to fight against scammers.
TARGETING THE MONEY POT
The primary weapon in its arsenal is something called the “1-3-5 initiative”. DSP Lim explained that previously, banks can take any time from two weeks to two months to get back to the police on requests such as freezing of bank accounts.
With this initiative, the three banks have committed to, on request, freeze scam-related banks accounts within days of notification. Additionally, it has agreed to provide bank account holders’ particulars and bank balances as well as retrieve bank statements swiftly, the police officer explained.
“Scammers are moving very fast now with the advent of technology. We have to catch up and be faster than them,” DSP Lim said.
“What this (1-3-5 initiative) means for SPF is that our disruption efforts will be a lot stronger now because we are able to freeze bank accounts swiftly. Also, we are able to commence investigations and apprehend the perpetrators more expeditiously,” he added.
Another weapon DSP Lim highlighted was something called the “three-in-one production order”.
He said investigation officers (IOs) in the past had to send three different orders to banks to request for three different kinds of services and information.
“We sat the banks down and said: ‘Look, this is not going to work because it’s not a fruitful use of our officers’ time.’ So they agreed to come up with a win-win situation … which is the three-in-one production order,” he said.
Essentially, IOs can just send one request and get all the information necessary and the request can now be made digitally, DSP Lim said.
“(With this,) operational efficiency will be improved, productivity increased and there will be a direct and positive impact on police’s investigation against scammers,” he added.
IMPACT ALREADY BEING FELT
Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Police (DAC) Aileen Yap, who oversees the ASC project and present at the same briefing, shared that these measures are helping. In the two months since ASC started, 1,047 cases were referred to the unit and victims had lost a total of S$2.4 million.
However, the new centre managed to freeze 815 bank accounts and recovered 35 per cent of the amount lost, or about S$840,000 - which is significantly higher than the recovery rates for these types of scams, she added.
DAC Yap said: “The police would like to thank DBS, OCBC and UOB for their partnership and commitment to swiftly freeze scam-related bank accounts to mitigate victim’s losses. And to retrieve bank account holders’ particulars promptly to allow police to carry out investigations against these money mules and suspected scammers.”
One of the representatives for DBS Bank, Mr Elvin Lim, said during the briefing that with the shift towards digital financial crimes, it is very important for the company to “keep up with (scammers’) speed and facilitate a lot of timely action in terms of enforcement”.
“In this partnership with ASC, we are actually enabling the funds to be captured before it falls into the hands of the perpetrators ... and we are able to do so 24/7,” Mr Lim, who is head of Group Investigations at the bank, said.
He said DBS is able to provide this option since June this year after it reworked its internal processes. By July, the bank was able to provide investigative information to the centre, he added.
Mr Lim also shared that there are plans to have one employee stationed permanently at ASC by the end of this year. This is to further improve the timeliness and effectiveness of how DBS provides information and participate in such investigations, he explained.
A representative from UOB, Mr Richard Soh, similarly welcomed the establishment of the ASC and shared how they helped one of the bank’s customers who became victime to an online scam.
Mr Soh, who is head of Investigation, Group Risk Management at UOB, said the customer had made payment for a mobile phone listed online but the device was not sent and the seller became uncontactable once payment was made. After realising he had been scammed, the buyer made a police report, thus alerting the ASC and both parties then worked to freeze the seller’s account immediately, he added.
“At UOB, safeguarding the interests of our customers is a top priority. As part of protecting our customers against cybercrimes, we have in place various proactive safeguards so that they may carry out online financial transactions with confidence,” Mr Soh said.
The police were also keen to point out two other initiatives they have embarked on to tackle scams.
It is working with telecommunications companies here to swiftly terminate mobile lines used by scammers - usually prepaid mobile lines, said DAC Yap - so as to disrupt their operations. It is also looking to remove suspicious online advertisements.
It has yet to come to a similar agreement like that of the banks to have telcos shut down suspicious mobile lines within a day, but discussions are ongoing, a police spokesperson told CNA.
CURBING CAROUSELL SCAMS
The other is to work with digital platform owners, such as online marketplace Carousell, to introduce scam prevention measures.
One of the more recent initiatives is to flag “high-risk categories” within Carousell’s app, and these include listings for concert tickets, hotel rentals or Universal Studios Singapore tickets, said Ms Tan Su Lin, vice president for Operations at Carousell. This feature was introduced in June this year.
Ms Tan shared that in addition to flagging these categories, sellers looking to list in these categories will have to use Carousell’s escrow service - CarouPay - to better protect buyers. The money only transfers hands after the buyer confirms that the product or service is received as advertised, she explained.
DAC Yap pointed out that such measures by Carousell have already had an impact on the number of scams seen on the platform.
She pointed out that compared to 74 per cent of e-commerce scams reported to have taken place on the online marketplace in the first half of 2018, the number has taken a “significant” drop of 53 per cent for the same period in 2019.
Yet, despite these efforts, e-commerce scams are still increasing and DAC Yap said it will continue to go up, which is why the police cannot be complacent.
“We have to constantly devise new strategies, have game-changing ones like the ASC, and with very strong commitments from the banks and the online marketplaces to help us,” she said.
She also called on the public to be vigilant, cautioning that anything that requires a bank transfer nowadays is “not safe anymore” and users should “think twice” when doing so.
“The police would like to take this opportunity to advise members of the public to exercise vigilance and be wary of scams. If you suspect that you have fallen prey to scams or cheated in any form, call the police immediately,” DAC Yap said.