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Anti-scam police race against time to nab culprits, stop funds being lost but must also win victims' trust

SINGAPORE — It was by chance that the officers from the Singapore Police Force’s anti-scam division came to learn that an 82-year-old woman had fallen prey to a China official impersonation scam, and helped her recover more than S$450,000 of her life-savings.

Officers of the Anti-Scam Division pose for a photo during a press event at the Police Cantonment Complex on Jan 27, 2022. From left: Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Lim Min Siang, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Police Aileen Yap, ASP Felicia Seow and Inspector Eric Low.

Officers of the Anti-Scam Division pose for a photo during a press event at the Police Cantonment Complex on Jan 27, 2022. From left: Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Lim Min Siang, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Police Aileen Yap, ASP Felicia Seow and Inspector Eric Low.

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  • Officers of the police anti-scam division talked about some of the challenges they faced dealing with scam cases
  • Their insights came in the wake of recent high-profile cases such as the OCBC phishing scam affecting hundreds of customers
  • One challenge they had was winning the trust of victims and convincing them that they have been scammed
  • Though challenging, the officers said they will not give up because they need to stop potential victims from losing more money

SINGAPORE — It was by chance that the officers from the Singapore Police Force’s anti-scam division came to learn that an 82-year-old woman had fallen prey to a China official impersonation scam, and helped her recover more than S$450,000 of her life-savings.

Inspector Eric Low said that the woman, who lives alone and has no relatives, was contacted by the scammer last year and was told that she was involved in money laundering activities in China.

Fearing that she was in trouble, the woman provided her bank account details to the scammer, and her money was eventually transferred out of the account.

Inspector Low and his colleagues were already conducting an operation against the same scammer when their investigations uncovered the woman’s plight.

“We immediately activated a team to trace and locate her,” Inspector Low said, though he added that the woman needed some convincing that she had been a victim of the scam.

Inspector Low and two of his colleagues were speaking to members of the media on Thursday (Jan 27), in the wake of a recent phishing scam involving hundreds of OCBC bank customers, to talk about some of the challenges that they face when investigating cases involving scams.

All of us have some weak spot and (targeting them) is what the scammers are best at. That’s why there are so many scam variants.
Assistant Superintendent of Police Lim Min Siang

Scams have been on the rise in Singapore. Aside from the recent OCBC case, other forms of scams have made the headlines in recent weeks involving banks such as DBS, and even the Supreme Court and the police.

In the mid-year crime statistics for 2021, of the total 19,444 crimes reported between January and July last year, 8,403 were scam-related cases — up from 7,247 during the same period a year earlier.

On Friday, the police said in a press release that they had conducted a two-week operation between Jan 14 and 27 that saw them rounding up a total of 259 alleged scammers who were involved in illicit activities that saw victims losing more than S$5.9 million. 

There are now 170 men and 89 women, between the age of 16 and 80, who are assisting in investigations for their suspected involvement as scammers or money mules.

Their alleged offences are that of cheating, money laundering or providing payment services without a licence. 

The suspects are believed to be involved in more than 564 cases of scams, comprising mainly internet love scams, e-commerce scams, bank-related phishing scams, tech support scams, China or government officials impersonation scams, social media impersonation scams, investment scams, job scams and loan scams.

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Lim Min Siang said that there will definitely be some element of distrust and confusion when they try approaching scam victims.

“Put yourselves (in the shoes) of an 82-year-old living alone. You first get contacted by the ‘China police’ saying that you’re being investigated. And then, suddenly, comes along this group of people saying that they are the real Singapore police and you must talk to them.”

ASP Felicia Seow said that in every case she has handled, the victims are in a state of “delusion” and will not immediately believe that they are victims.

“So we really need to gain their trust and (find ways) to convince them.”

Her solution was to present typical scenarios that she has encountered for similar cases, and asked the woman if this was what she went through as well.

“She was like, ‘Eh, how did you know this story? I thought this was a private story to me’.”

It was only then that the elderly woman began to trust that ASP Seow and her colleagues were the real deal.

However, the officers also said that not all cases proceeded so smoothly. In some cases, the victims would not believe that the police are legitimate.

They have encountered situations in which the victims inform the scammers — who they ironically believe are the real police — that they were “interrogated” by the real police who they perceived to be the scammers instead.

“It's very time-consuming, but as investigators, I don't think we should give up at any point in time,” ASP Seow said.

Fund recovery is definitely an action we will undertake, but there's no guarantee that we will be able to bring back your money…but we will guarantee that the best effort will be done to ensure justice is served.
Assistant Superintendent of Police Lim Min Siang

The officers explained that time was of the essence, as they needed to convince the victims that they had been scammed and to stop them from losing any more money.

The officers will keep on trying until the victims come around. They have even gone so far as calling their uniformed counterparts from the neighbourhood police posts to show up as a way to reassure the victims.

Once trust has been established, ASP Lim said that it will not be a “touch and go” situation, but a commitment to stay in communication with the victims until the case concludes.

For instance, if they determine that a victim is vulnerable, they will pull in more resources from the community police unit — formed for the purposes of engaging members of the community — to conduct house visits to the victim.

In some cases, the officers said that the victims started harbouring suicidal thoughts when they realised that they had been scammed.

When this happens, the police will arrange for a counsellor to talk them out of entertaining such thoughts.

The police did not go into details of how they managed to recover the 82-year-old woman’s savings, but they said that they took the extra step to ensure she would not lose them again.

Inspector Low said that they escorted the woman to the bank so that she could deposit the cheque that contained her recovered savings and even got the bank’s employees to deactivate the woman’s online banking account to “prevent her from being scammed again in future”.

As for the scammer involved, police investigations are still ongoing.

‘MONEY OUT IS MONEY GONE’

The officers stressed that they will try their best to help victims to recover their money, but victims should also be prepared to accept that “money out is money gone”.

ASP Lim said that once a victim’s money leaves his or her bank account, it is often hard for the police to get it back, more so if it ends up in an overseas account.

TODAY reported last August that the Anti-Scam Centre, working with banks, were able to recover about 34 per cent of the total amount lost to scams, or about S$127 million.

“Fund recovery is definitely an action we will undertake, but there's no guarantee that we will be able to bring back your money… but we will guarantee that the best effort will be done to ensure justice is served,” ASP Lim said.

This is why there is value in making a police report if a victim has been scammed, because it will allow the police to “track down and bring the perpetrators to justice”.

This would prevent other potential victims from being scammed, ASP Lim added.

"It could be your friends, your family that might fall for the same scam if we do not put a stop to this." 

However, the best defence is not to be complacent and not to think that one will never be scammed.

“All of us have some weak spot and (targeting them) is what the scammers are best at. That’s why there are so many scam variants,” ASP Lim said.

The punishment for anyone found guilty of cheating is a jail term of up to 10 years and a fine, while those found guilty of money laundering can also be jailed up to 10 years or fined up to S$500,000, or both.

Those found guilty of providing payment services without a licence can be fined up to S$125,000 or jailed up to three years, or both.

For more information on scams, members of the public may go to www.scamalert.sg or call the Anti-Scam Hotline at 1800-722-6688

Anyone with information on such scams may also call the police hotline at 1800-255-0000 or submit information online at www.police.gov.sg/iwitness. 

Related topics

Police crime Anti-Scam Centre Scam

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