Scam cases soar 65 per cent as more go online in 2020

PHOTO: Getty Images
PHOTO: Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Scam cases remain on the rise in Singapore in 2020, contributing significantly to a slight increase in both the total number of reported crimes and the overall crime rate.

In its annual crime brief released on Tuesday (9 February), the Singapore Police Force (SPF) said that online scams saw a significant increase as Singaporeans carried out more online transactions due to the COVID-19 situation.

This has led to a 6.5 per cent increase in the total number of reported crimes last year with 37,409 cases, up from 35,115 cases in 2019. Overall crime rate also rose to 658 cases per 100,000 population in 2020, compared to 616 cases per 100,000 population in 2019.

The total number of scam cases reported increased by a whopping 65.1 per cent to 15,756 cases in 2020, from 9,545 cases in 2019. It made up 42.1 per cent of overall crime in 2020, up from 27.2 per cent in 2019.

If scam cases were excluded, the total number of reported crimes in 2020 would have decreased by 15.3 per cent to 21,653, down from 25,570 in 2019.

“While Singapore’s streets and homes remain safe, online scam cases continue to increase in line with the global trend,” said senior assistant commissioner of police How Kwang Hwee, who is also the director of Criminal Investigation Department.

“We saw changes in crime trends with an increase in online crimes and a decrease in physical crimes. Criminals moved their illegal activities online and developed new tactics to target potential victims.”

E-commerce scams stay top, but others saw significant spikes

E-commerce scams remains the top scam type, with 3,354 cases in 2020, up from 2,816 in 2019.

The total amount cheated also increased to $6.9 million last year, from $2.3 million in 2019. The largest sum cheated in a single case in 2020 was $1.9 million.

Common scam transactions involved sales of electronic gadgets, COVID-19 related items and personal accessories.

While Carousell continues to have the most e-commerce scams reported on its platform (1,319 cases), Shopee recorded the highest increase in 2020 of 150.7 per cent (from 278 to 697 cases).

Three scam types saw significant spikes last year: social media impersonation scams, banking-related phishing scams and non-banking-related phishing scams.

For social media impersonation scams, the number of cases rose by 283 per cent to 3,010 cases in 2020, up from just 786 cases in 2019. The total amount cheated was at least $5.5 million.

In the majority of these cases, victims were tricked into disclosing their mobile numbers or credit card information and one-time passwords (OTPs) to scammers who used compromised or spoofed social media accounts to impersonate their victims’ friends or followers on social media platforms.

Scammers would often claim to help their victims sign up for online contests or promotions which turned out to be fake. Their victims would later discover that unauthorised transactions had been made from their bank accounts or mobile wallets.

Instagram and Facebook were the most common social media platforms where such scams took place, with 885 cases and 1962 cases respectively.

Banking-related phishing scams – in which victims were tricked into disclosing Internet banking usernames, personal identification numbers (PINs) and OTPs to scammers posing as bank staff – spiked by a whopping 1,578 per cent to 1,342 in 2020, from 80 in 2019. A total of $5.8 million was being cheated via this scam type.

Non-banking-related phishing scams also soared by 1,214 per cent to 644 in 2020 from 49 in 2019, with at least $981,000 cheated. In the majority of these cases, culprits used reasons such as checks on parcel delivery status to persuade victims to give up their banking credentials/card details and OTPs.

Other significant scam types include loan scams, investment scams, credit-for-sex scams, internet love scams, tech support scams and China officials impersonation scams.

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Multi-pronged approach to tackle rise in scam cases: SPF

SPF said in the annual crime brief that it has been taking a multi-pronged approach to tackle the increase in scam cases in Singapore.

It has an Anti-Scam Centre to track island-wide scam trends and make sense of the voluminous crime data that the centre processes daily. It has worked with local telcos and online marketplaces to terminate more than 1,200 mobile lines, and removed more than 2,900 suspicious online monikers and advertisements involved in suspected scams.

On 20 November last year, the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) launched the ScamShield mobile app to identify and filter out scam messages using artificial intelligence. The app, which has been downloaded by more than 84,000 users since, also blocks calls from phone numbers that were used in other scam cases or reported by ScamShield users.

SPF has also conducted 22 island-wide anti-scam enforcement operations, leading to more than 4,900 money mules and scammers being investigated last year. It has also worked closely with international counterparts in the exchange of information and conduct of joint investigations and operations to combat transnational scams.

“We encourage the public to stay updated on scams, and be aware of common scam tactics like offers of unbelievably low prices, being asked to disclose your OTPs, being told to pay ‘government’ fines over the telephone, or assist in investigations by transferring money to unknown parties,” said NCPC chairman Gerald Singham.

“Everyone should also practise good cyber hygiene to prevent important personal and business information from being stolen.”

Crimes fall partly due to movement restrictions during circuit breaker

Outside of scam cases, Singapore remains one of the safest cities in the world.

In 2020, the country was ranked first in the Gallup’s Global Law and Order report for the seventh consecutive year, with 97 per cent of residents reporting that they felt safe walking home alone in their neighbourhood at night, as compared to an average of 69 per cent worldwide.

SPF said in its annual crime brief that there were fewer physical crimes last year, with 201 days of the year being free from three confrontational crimes: snatch theft, robbery and housebreaking. In 2019, there were 178 days free from these crimes.

Two out of the six crime classes that made up the overall crime in 2020 decreased significantly compared to 2019. Theft and related crimes decreased by 33.1 per cent to 7,448 cases in 2020, from 11,128 cases in 2019, while housebreaking and related crimes decreased by 24.9 per cent to 211 cases in 2020, from 281 cases in 2019. Both these crime classes recorded a 36-year low.

The annual crime brief also stated that the total number of unlicensed moneylending-related harassment cases, such as placing harassment notes in letter boxes and at residential units and splashing of paint, decreased by 36.7 per cent to 3,344 cases in 2020, from 5,281 cases in 2019.

This decrease was partly due to the restriction of movements during the COVID-19 circuit breaker period in April and May 2020.

The number of outrage of modesty cases also decreased by 17.8 per cent to 1,320 in 2020 from 1,605 in 2019.

This is also partly due to the low ridership on public transport, low footfall at shopping malls and the closure of public entertainment outlets during the circuit breaker period.

However, the number of cyber extortion cases increased by 260 per cent to 245 cases in 2020, from 68 cases in 2019.

In these cases, criminals typically befriend victims online and subsequently coax them into performing compromising or indecent acts in front of a camera. Thereafter, the criminals would use the video footage or images to extort money or online credits from these victims.

The total amount lost by victims of cyber extortion cases was more than $793,000. The highest amount lost by a victim in a single case was about $200,000.

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