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Woman, 70, cheated of S$8,000 in online love scam, nearly became a money mule

SINGAPORE — Smitten by the movie-star looks of a stranger on Facebook, 70-year-old Rosie (not her real name) kept up her online chats with the man, who approached her through the social media platform some time last year. The freelance actress, who is married and has a son in his 40s, thought it was a “romantic fling”, but she ended up losing S$8,000 to the conman.

Woman, 70, cheated of S$8,000 in online love scam, nearly became a money mule

Rosie, 70, a victim of Internet love scam, at the Police media briefing at Commercial Affairs Department on March 26, 2018. Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

SINGAPORE — Smitten by the movie-star looks of a stranger on Facebook, 70-year-old Rosie (not her real name) kept up her online chats with the man, who approached her through the social media platform some time last year.

The freelance actress, who is married and has a son in his 40s, thought it was a “romantic fling”, but she ended up losing S$8,000 to the conman.

Her case is among a growing number of cross-border Internet love scams last year.

It was detected by the Transnational Commercial Crime Task Force, a new unit under the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) of the Singapore Police Force established last October to arrest this problem.

Rosie said that the conman claimed to be in his 30s and based in Malaysia. He called her three to four times a week through WhatsApp, and used sweet words such as “darling” or “sayang” (sweetheart in Malay) on her.

“At home, my husband would not be affectionate with me. With that guy, he was so handsome. I was in a fantasy with him,” she said.

Months after they connected, the sweet talking turned into a plea for help. The man told her that he needed S$10,000 to fund the medical treatment of his friend’s child, and sent her a photo of a child whose body was inserted with many intravenous needles.

Rosie admitted that she was naive. She transferred a total of S$8,000 to the man and had to pawn her jewellery to raise the amount.

The man also tried to get her to be a money mule — someone who would receive money that was either stolen or fraudulently transferred into his or her bank account. The money mule would then transfer the money to an account belonging to another person, who tends to be the one orchestrating the scam.

In Rosie’s case, she was to receive S$9,000 from another woman and then remit the amount to an overseas bank account so that the man can retrieve the money.

Rosie was arrested after the other woman — who was reportedly another victim — called the police, who discovered that the S$9,000 was traced to Rosie’s bank account.

Although Rosie was not prosecuted, she was issued a police advisory. The police were unable to establish the identity of the man who had been in contact with her.

 

STOPPING THE MONEY TRANSFERS

Between last October and February this year, investigations by the Transnational Commercial Crime Task Force showed that there were more than 200 money mules involved in such Internet love scams. In the same period, the taskforce also seized at least S$1 million.

From end-December last year to early January this year, it conducted a joint operation with the Royal Malaysia Police, arresting 11 suspects believed to be involved in 10 cases of Internet love scams in Singapore and Malaysia.

Speaking at a media briefing on Monday (March 26), Superintendent Chew Jingwei, who heads the syndicated fraud branch at the CAD, said that the taskforce’s key strategy is eliminate the money mules to deny foreign scam syndicates their criminal benefits and to stop their operations. This involves freezing the money mules’ bank accounts swiftly.

“Speed is of the essence. If we allow the money mule to be out in the market, the account will continue to be circulated and more victims will be transferring money to this account,” he said.

Officers in the taskforce, including Superintendent Chew, deal specifically with Internet love scams, which is a more targeted and efficient approach.

Previously, officers from the various police land divisions had to handle such cases on top of other crimes, he added. The taskforce is bumping up its manpower strength from six now to 12 from this April.

As it expands, the taskforce will also tackle other transnational crimes including impersonation scams, where individuals have posed as a government officials.

Last month, the police revealed that there were 825 cases of Internet love scams last year, which was a new high. The number had gone up by 30 per cent, up from 635 cases the year before. The total amount cheated, at S$37 million, was also a new high compared to S$24 million in 2016.

Assistant superintendent Kristian James Kirkwood, a member of the taskforce, said that the people behind Internet love scams will invest a “huge amount of time”, ranging from months to years, to cultivate close relationships with the victims, including “proclaiming love to them quite quickly”.

Although some friends warned Rosie that she was likely being conned, she dismissed their concerns because she was too enamoured with the man. After the police froze her bank account, the man continued to harangue her for money, but this stopped earlier this year after the police advised her to ignore his messages.

After she told her family about the case, her son was “furious”, Rosie said. Her husband, who is an odd-job worker and whom she described as “religious”, was upset that she flirted with another man, but has since forgiven her.

“I felt very guilty,” Rosie said. “I was too carried away. I thought that man was a nice man but he was a devil.”

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