Smart, but scammed: Con artist victims come from all walks of life

Victims of scams come from all walks of life as con artists play on their anxiety during hoaxes

An elderly woman was recently cheated of $2.3 million, according to a report lodged with the Singapore Police Force. It is the largest single amount scammed this year out of 61 similar cases.

The victim received a telephone call purportedly from a China official who claimed she was suspected of being involved in illegal activity.

She was asked to transfer money to the alleged official to assist in investigations to clear her name. The money was remitted in five transactions. Investigations are ongoing.

A Singapore Police Force spokesman says: "The police has seen an increase in the number of reports of persons falling victim to scams."

There were about 198 cases of Internet love scams in 2014, but 244 similar cases have already been reported from January to May this year.

I was tired and stressed and couldn't think in a logical way. They made it seem like they were doing me a favour.

DAVID (NOT HIS REAL NAME), on being scammed by people impersonating China police

While the $2.3-million scam victim was a senior, this demographic group, aged 65 and older, sometimes stereotyped as being easy targets for con artists, are not the only victims.

Younger people between 20 and 49 years old comprised 67 per cent of victims in similar phone scams involving the impersonation of China officials, according to police figures.

Perpetrators of other hoaxes have also snared men and women across demographics, including professionals and tech-savvy consumers, in part because diverse scams are tailored to prey on a wide range of vulnerabilities.

Scam victims can come from "all walks of life", says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital Singapore.

Intelligence is not necessarily a safeguard against scams, he says. In fact, intelligent people who are confident of themselves may sometimes be "more at risk".

  • Top scams

    Here are the top five scams, based on the approximate amounts cheated from victims, between January and May this year:

    1 Internet love scams - $8.9 million

    Perpetrators, who usually claim to be foreigners, target victims looking for love or friendship online.

    2 China officials impersonation scams - $4.9 million

    Victims are told their identities were used to send parcels containing items such as fake passports or weapons.

    They are referred to another caller claiming to be an official from China and asked to provide personal details or to remit money to the authorities to avoid further investigation.

    3 Credit-for-sex scams - $646,900

    Scammers convince victims to buy cards or online shopping credits in exchange for sexual or escort services.

    4 Online purchase scams - $623,500

    Scammers post online advertisements for tablets, smartphones or other gadgets at attractive prices. Victims are asked to pay in advance, but the items are not delivered.

    5 Lottery scams- $396,200

    In lottery scams such as Scratch and Win schemes, victims, who might be shopping in Johor Baru, scratch cards and "win" expensive prizes, for which they are asked to pay administration charges or taxes before collection.

    •Source: Singapore Police Force


    Protect yourself

    •Do not add strangers to your social media networks. If someone claiming to be a friend of a Facebook friend contacts you, check with your Facebook friend first regarding the would-be friend's identity.

    •Do not interact with strangers online, especially when they ask for financial assistance or seek companionship.

    •If someone you know is using multiple accounts to add you as a friend, verify this with him directly.

    •Do not post or provide sensitive information such as personal particulars, bank details as well as photos of credit cards, identity cards, passports, boarding passes or club membership cards.

    •Do not click on suspicious or overly enticing links to news items (for example, news that flight MH370, which disappeared in 2014, has been found safe) or too-good-to-be-true promotional offers in apps and social media. Clicking on them could compromise your social media systems if the links contain malware.

    •In a telephone call or Internet query posed to you, ask probing questions rather than passively answering queries. Ask who they are, where they are from, and say you want to verify their agency. Push back against their line of questioning and scammers are more likely to cease.

    •End the call if you suspect it is a scam and make a police report. You may end up unwittingly revealing more information about yourself if you remain on the line. Speed is crucial: The police can act once the report is filed.

    •Sources: Mr Fadli Sidek, a consultant at global risk consultancy Control Risks; and Mr Gerald Singham, vice-chairman at the National Crime Prevention Council.

Dr Lim says: "Once a scammer persuades them, they may be less likely to question their own judgment."

He adds: "Certain hoaxes appeal to certain people, but the principle is the same, such as playing on a person's anxiety, which can be increased by the pressure of time, where the perpetrator does not give the victim time to verify things."

Such misjudgments have a scientific explanation.

Dr Yu Rongjun from the National University of Singapore's Department of Psychology says: "Some scammers try to put people in a panic situation involving punishment or threat."

This in turn disrupts the brain's processing in the prefrontal cortex, associated with reasoning and calculation. It inhibits the person's capacity to think rationally, says Dr Yu, a trained psychologist who specialises in research on decision-making.

Another factor in how a scam achieves its aim is what Dr Lim describes as "herd mentality". He says: "We may deny it, but we tend to do what other people do or trust what other people trust, for example, a friend of a friend."

John (not his real name), a retired lawyer in his 70s, signed a cheque for a loan of $30,000 a few years ago to a man whom a good friend vouched for. The man told John he would repay the original amount, with interest, after his business problems were resolved.

Although the man initially repaid him a few thousand dollars, he later gave him post-dated cheques and subsequently cancelled them. After about a year, he dropped out of contact entirely, ignoring John's repeated calls for repayment.

He says: "I was very angry with myself. A lawyer, caught like that. I trusted him on the strength of my friend's words."

His friend, who apparently believed the con man in good faith, was suffering from cancer and died within a year of the incident.

Security experts and psychiatrists say there are different forms of trust and, perhaps unexpectedly, scams sometimes succeed because of a wider trust in authority figures.

Mr Gerald Singham, vice- chairman of the National Crime Prevention Council, whose initiatives include a nation-wide anti- scam campaign, says: "There is a lot of trust in public institutions. Law enforcement has been very effective in Singapore and that sometimes lulls people into a very trusting state of mind. So when calls come in from people claiming to be from official agencies, they let their guard down."

This seems to be the case for David (not his real name), an engineer in his 30s, who was cheated by scammers impersonating China police with a focus on international crime.

He received a call last month claiming to be from a courier company, which said that Shanghai customs officials had intercepted a parcel in his name containing 16 credit cards.

He was transferred to someone who claimed to be a police officer and was "convinced" by the phone number that showed on his caller ID, which appeared to be a number linked to the police. A check on Google confirmed his initial impression that the number was legitimate, although he did not know technology exists to mask the actual phone number and display a different one.

He was frightened when told he was suspected of criminal activity and that his bank account would be frozen until he was investigated and proven innocent.

"I was tired and stressed and couldn't think in a logical way. They made it seem like they were doing me a favour," recalls David.

He was instructed to download a smartphone app and save his Internet banking account number in his contacts list. Soon after he did that, he found that $7,000 had been withdrawn from his account.

Mr Singham says the kind of scam David fell prey to - where victims download apps containing malicious software which captures information stored in smartphones - is the latest development in a rapidly evolving scam genre that arrived in Singapore only this year.

While the cliched e-mail-based scams, said to originate from Nigeria, still exist, social media is contributing more to the scam landscape.

Mr Fadli Sidek, a cyber threat intelligence analyst and consultant at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy, says these include Internet love scams targeting lonely women using Facebook; cyber sex scams on apps such as WeChat targeting men; and scams on e-commerce sites that promise great bargains but instead link to "promotions" that are information-stealing malicious software.

According to the police, Internet love scams, the current top-grossing scam in Singapore, have seen victims cheated of $8.9 million so far. One of these cases reported last month involved a $1.2-million remittance to a scammer posing as a boyfriend.

The police spokesman says: "With more people using their smartphones and the Internet for daily activities including shopping, phone and Internet scams have become a global phenomenon.

"The police has been actively engaging staff of service points such as remittance agencies, banks and convenience shops. There have been cases where the staff interceded and managed to stop the victims from transferring any money."

The fact that people in Singapore have helped one another thwart scam attempts is a silver lining.

Amid ongoing national and community anti-scam efforts, an increase in the number of scams reported to the police also indicates an increase in scam awareness among the population, says the spokesman.

Education is part of the fight, says Mr Singham. "If others are also defrauded, people may be less embarrassed to report such scams."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'Smart, but scammed'. Print Edition | Subscribe