'Popular' scams in Singapore and Malaysia that you should be aware about

Like consumers, scammers have turned their attention online. And their tricks may seem more familiar than you realise.

·7-min read
A composite image of a computer hacker and a phone with a scam call.
Both Malaysia and Singapore have been working together to curb the rise of various scams in the country. (Photo: Getty Images)

By Qishin Tariq

With connectivity, internet speeds and digital penetration having improved in recent years, so too have online scams become more prevalent, with unscrupulous individuals even found to be working across time zones and borders to cheat and deceive.

Be that as it may, the silver lining to the current situation is that with certain scams becoming more common, it's actually become a little easier to keep oneself safe.

Here's a look at some of the most "popular" scams in Malaysia and Singapore, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Phone-a-Friend lifeline

The "fake friend" scam, which has cost victims more than S$3.2 million (RM10.6 million) in losses since January, has recently risen to the top of the popularity chart.

This scam relies on the goodwill of folks to help a friend in need.

It often involves a scammer pretending to be an acquaintance and contacting the would-be victim via messages or phone calls.

The scammer then provides a sob story before eventually asking to borrow some money to get out of a pinch. To further sell their tall tale and account for using a different phone number, the scammer typically also claims to have lost their phone or been forced to change numbers.

Some even go as far as mimicking a person using an AI voice changer. Recently, a couple in Canada was duped of S$28,000 after responding to a call that claimed that the caller was their son. The AI had managed to replicate the son's voice, and was apparently close enough that they fell for it.

The Singapore Police Force recommends that the public verify such requests by checking with a mutual friend or family member before making any cash loans.

Even better is getting in touch with the acquaintance through an alternate channel like a video call or meeting in person. This has the added benefit of alerting the friend that their identity is being abused to commit fraud.

Buyer beware

Everyone loves a good bargain. And that's something scammers have started capitalising on.

In the e-commerce scam, criminals set up seemingly proper stores on social media marketplaces. To lure unsuspecting customers, they also post adverts offering goods at significant discounts or bundled together with too-good-to-be-true deals.

These social media accounts don't hold up their end of the deal, however, once victims make payments. And even more frustratingly, they ignore or block messages.

One recent high-profile victim to be duped by such a scam was Ah Boys to Men actor Charlie Goh, who was tricked out of S$160 when he bought several kilos of salmon and wagyu beef, which never arrived. In addition to filing a police report, he also took to social media to lambast the crooked store.

Singapore police reported on March 7 that 168 victims have lost more than S$20,000 since February to such e-commerce scams involving the sale of food like wagyu beef and durians.

Things aren't any better over in Malaysia, with the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) attributing the growing trend of e-commerce scams to COVID-19-related lockdowns, which drove many consumers online.

To protect oneself, nevertheless, the advice is to be cautious when shopping outside of well-known and regulated e-commerce sites. And if you're wary, refer to the authorities, such as Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs safety rating system for e-commerce platforms.

Note also that with the resumption of concerts and large-scale live events, scammers are expected to count on consumers' fear of missing out, too. Hence, it is also advisable to avoid buying tickets from scalpers.

Hunting job hunters

With people now more desperate for work and willing to try new types of jobs, scammers have found a new pool of victims to rip off post-pandemic — the gig economy. According to a report from the Singapore police, more young adults are falling for job scams.

One common method has been to reach out to victims over WhatsApp or social media to offer part-time jobs that pay a few hundred a day.

This typically involves buying goods from an e-commerce shop, then reviewing them in order to boost the store's rating. Buyers are promised compensation for the purchase and a commission for the review.

One other format requires victims to pay a processing fee to have their job application considered, though there is often no job waiting for them.

A recent story showed how one 23-year-old was scammed out of S$300,000 over just five days, as he was lured into a buy-and-rate job scam that quickly escalated from buying small items for a few dollars to purchasing a thousand dollar fridge, then an S$80,000 Rolex.

In light of all this, the authorities advise job seekers to do their due diligence and determine if the "companies" engaging them have, for example, a corporate website and a contactable human resources department. Also, as a rule of thumb, never pay to get the opportunity for a job, as that is not proper practice for a legitimate firm.

Abusing AI

While classic hoaxes, like the "Nigerian prince" email scam, used to be easy to spot thanks to the outlandish stories and even worse grammar, that's no longer the case. Indeed, even grammarly-sound, eagle-eyed people may not be safe these days, with scammers turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to up the ante.

Cyber-security experts warn that generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT can now help edit and clean up scam messages.

Matt Oostveen, regional vice-president and chief technology officer of data management firm Pure Storage, says that text used in phishing scams has become better written over the past six months, in line with the booming popularity of these chat AI, primarily due to their more "polite, bedside manner" or style of writing.

And so, users are advised to keep an eye out for suspicious attachments, headers, senders and URLs embedded within the email; factors that aren't as easily addressed by AI assistance.

Staying safe and secure

When in doubt, note that there are plenty of resources online to help identify potential frauds.

The Scam Alert site is one such resource, run by Singapore's National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) in collaboration with the Singapore police. Worried consumers can also call the Anti-Scam Hotline at 1800-722-6688. If you're in Singapore, Scam Shield is also a great way to identify and block scam calls and SMSes on your mobile phone, while also being able to report them if you find any suspicious activity.

PDRM, meanwhile, has set up a database of phone numbers and bank numbers tied to scammers on its site, Semak Mule. The site has recorded some 15 million checks since launching in 2020.

Yet, despite the above, and even as police on both sides of the Causeway work together to take down scam syndicates, and Malaysian Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil and his Singapore counterpart discuss personal data protection, cybersecurity and cracking down on scammers, it's important to realise that consumers themselves hold the key to being protected from scams.

Explains Baskaran Sithamparam of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca): "When engaging services on social media, whether buying something or job hunting, consumers need to do their homework on who they are dealing with.

"(Tools like) Semak Mule give consumers a chance to check if the account they are transferring payment to is associated with criminals. That said, some accounts might not be flagged yet, so use caution even if it appears 'clean'."

In other words, if something looks and sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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