A woman who goes by the name of “Pauline Ong” has cheated at least 230 buyers of more than $53,000 in a series of online forum scams.
Confronted by irate buyers who turned up at her house earlier this month, she has since apologised and has started paying refunds to affected customers from at least nine different online sprees on the Singapore Motherhood forum.
An online spree takes place when a group of like-minded online buyers come together to bundle their purchases to enjoy better rates and save on shipping. It's frequently organised by people who have special connections or contacts in other countries who can bulk-purchase items for cheaper prices.
Using two separate nicknames, noelpauline and Cynthia.k, Ong had created at least nine threads under the forum’s Overseas Spree section from March this year to advertise attractive shipping fees, lower tax and exchange rates for items including bags, wristlets and lanyards from upscale brands like Coach, Kate Spade and Longchamp.
Ong’s initial sprees, run under her username noelpauline, were only partially fulfilled, however, and buyers complained of her unresponsiveness, subsequently demanding refunds.
They accused Ong of cancelling and postponing appointments to hand over items, and of not updating forum threads promptly with purchases and deliveries.
Cracks in her ruse appeared earlier this month, when a number of users on the forum first questioned the similarity between noelpauline and Cynthia.K.
One affected buyer, who declined to be named, said she contacted noelpauline by email as she was not a member of the Singapore Motherhood forum. She told Yahoo! Singapore that out of the blue, she received a separate email about a similar sale from a person named Cynthia, even though she had never contacted the latter before.
Another buyer who only wanted to be known as Mrs Tan said her experience of a buying spree organised by Ong left her disappointed.
“This was the first time I didn’t get a bag even after placing my order almost two months ago,” she said. “Usually if the bag is out of stock, the organiser (of the spree) would inform (us) quite fast, and (give us) refunds within a few days or a week.”
“I seriously feel she is not remorseful, judging from her numerous nicknames,” she added, explaining that users have to be members for more than a year before being able to post in the Overseas Sprees forum. “This seems like a well-planned scam.”
Other users started to post similar suspicions in Cynthia.K’s and noelpauline’s spree threads. But Ong waved them off, claiming they were “computer glitches” and insisting she did not know the other user.
She was finally barred from organising further sprees by forum moderators and earlier this month on 8 June, buyers who had been duped started demanding refunds. With a growing list of irate customers, some of whom threatened to file police reports, Ong relented and promised to return their money, appealing to them to avoid contacting the police.
After some of the buyers confronted Ong at her Jurong West flat later that evening, Ong admitted she owned both accounts, and that she had indeed cheated her customers of their money.
Ong’s father-in-law allegedly brokered a deal with the customers who met her in person, promising to pay everyone back if they held off filing police reports.
By then, a list of over 200 affected buyers had come forward, demanding refunds for amounts ranging from just $33 to more than $2,000, and Ong started paying them back in batches.
By Thursday evening, about 100 buyers have acknowledged receipt of the money they paid her. This amounted to slightly more than $22,000, about 40 per cent of the total.
Refunds have been scheduled till the end of next month, and affected buyers say they are still adopting a wait-and-see approach to decide whether or not to press charges against Ong.
Several attempts by Yahoo! Singapore to reach Ong for comment via her four listed mobile numbers and at least three email accounts were unsuccessful.
Was Ong behind older scams as well?
Since her scam was exposed, other buyers have also started coming forward with further accusations against Ong, saying her email addresses and usernames have turned up in other websites and forums offering similar deals as well.
Online searches for Ong’s multiple email accounts turn up pages on Gmarket and Deluxemall.com, offering sprees for luxury bags and childcare items.
One buyer, who goes by the nickname Mimosa, suspects Ong may have run similar sprees that ended in the same manner last year, under an account called lelebabyland.
She told Yahoo! Singapore her sister bought into the scam then, and experienced no-shows when she was supposed to meet the spree organiser. Refunds were also only disbursed about a month later.
Yet another user observed that the bank accounts used by another seller, who went by the nickname bagagreatdeal, was the same as the one used by Cynthia.k to collect money. After raising this to her directly, Ong said the former was her friend, who was using her bank account to collect money.
This is not the first time a scam has happened on the Singapore Motherhood forum. In June last year, a woman was arrested for masterminding a scam on Resorts World Sentosa hotel stays bundled with Universal Studios Singapore tickets, cheating about 130 people of more than $95,000.