When Alice (not her real name) received a Facebook friend request from a male stranger in December last year, she was immediately drawn to his “handsome, well-built Chinese-looking” profile photo. Without hesitation, the married woman with two children accepted the man’s request.
Through personal messages on the social media platform, the man introduced himself to the 48-year-old Singaporean as a self-employed businessman based in Canada.
Using the excuse of having a bad Internet connection, he coaxed Alice into giving him her mobile number.
Over the next two to three months, the pair soon began to message and call each other daily on WhatsApp. Often, during these hour-long calls, Alice would go to a corner in her kitchen to chat with the man after her husband of 17 years had fallen asleep for the night.
The man, who spoke with “an American accent”, charmed Alice with his sweet nothings.
“He started saying, ‘I love you’, and called me ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’. He will also message me to say he missed me and dreamt of us getting married, having kids,” said Alice.
In March, the man asked Alice for her address. “(He had) a surprise gift for me,” she said.
He sent her a photo of the carton of “presents”, allegedly containing valuables like jewellery, a laptop, clothes, iPhone, iPad and a large envelope containing US$25,000 worth of cash. The latter was declared to “the customs” as their “marriage certificate”, he added.
There was a catch, however, he told Alice – she had to fork out cash to cover the required “goods and services tax”. But he assured her that the US$25,000 that he was sending over would be more than enough to cover the costs.
Alice complied when a person pretending to be from a courier company, and calling from a “foreign number”, told her to transfer $2,600 to a given bank account.
A few days later, another “representative” from the company called Alice with some “bad news”. Because they found out about the undeclared cash, they required her to transfer $5,000plus to cover the additional service charge.
“I told (the man I befriended on Facebook) that I didn’t want to pay. He promised me once I receive the gifts (and money), the amount will cover what I have spent. I was suspicious but chose to believe him,” said Alice.
Short of cash, she resorted to secretly withdrawing the money from a joint account that she and her mother shared, with the intention of replacing the sum later.
The “representative” called again a few days later, this time requesting Alice to transfer an additional $26,700 to obtain another certificate to release the goods.
Following the advice of her friend, Alice decided to make a police report. It, however, did not stop the man from contacting her and she eventually blocked the scammer’s number. Thankfully, she managed to recover the cash that she had transferred.
“Now, I don’t chat so much on Facebook and only add friends selectively,” said Alice, who has not confided in her husband about the scam.
Rise in number of loan scams
Alice is one of 280 victims of online love scams handled by the police in the first half of 2018, down from 344 cases in the same period last year, according to mid-year crime statistics released by the Singapore Police Force on 23 August. It was the first decline in such scams in five years.
The total amount that victims lost to online love scams fell to around $12 million in the first half of this year from about $22 million in the same period last year.
Nonetheless, the number of cases of people who were scammed in other ways has risen. E-commerce scams, loan scams and “China officials” impersonation scams increased by about 73 per cent to 1,823 cases over the period.
“With pervasive Internet penetration and greater prevalence of smartphones in Singapore, more Singaporeans are going online. This has likely contributed to the increase in online commercial crime cases,” the police said then in the report, which added that such crimes are particularly challenging to solve because of the Internet’s “borderless nature”.
Loan scams were flagged as an increasing worry – there was a 92.6 per cent increase to 364 cases in the first half of 2018. The total amount lost to such scams almost tripled to about $730,000 in the first half of 2018.
Easy loans with snowballing interest
Faizul (not his real name) was piqued by a Facebook page presumably belonging to a man who professed to work for a credit company. The man was offering to lend $3,000, with $4,500 to be repaid across 15 months at $300 monthly.
The “professional-looking” profile photo of the business-suited man prompted Faizul, a 33-year-old Singaporean technician, to reach out to him on 1 May.
“I was looking for some cash as I just got my built-to-order (BTO) flat (and wanted to buy furniture for it). I decided to call the man to ask about the loan,” said Faizul, who is married with three children. “I believed him.”
When he contacted the number listed on the page, Faizul shared with the receiver of the call his personal details including his IC number, Central Provident Fund statement, payslips, and bank details.
As he was a “first-time” applicant, the man offered Faizul a trial loan of $400. He instructed Faizul to pay him $600 by the fifth day, if not the interest and principal sum would snowball to $800.
Faizul complied but decided not to go through with the rest of the loan and told the man so. However, the next day, the man transferred another $400, claiming that the loan had already been processed. Like before, he demanded Faizul to transfer $600 by the fifth day.
After confirming his suspicions with an online search of such scams, Faizul made a police report. The man continued to threaten Faizul with videos showing houses being burned and doors being splashed with paint. Because the man had Faizul’s workplace details, he had to inform his boss about the possibility of harassment at the office.
When he later checked the man’s Facebook page, it was no longer around.
“I felt very stupid and cheated. At the point in time, I couldn’t sleep properly because (the moneylenders) may come to our house and disturb us,” he said.
Faizul closed his bank account on the advice of the police. These days, he takes the opportunity to warn others about other possible scammers.
“When I trawl Facebook and see the same tactics but under different names and profiles, I will leave a message in the comment section, asking others to be wary of these moneylenders, he said.