My mind went blank, says woman who was the target of a kidnap scam

Special Constable Sergeant Jeremiah Koh trying to stop Madam Lee from transferring money to the "kidnapper".
Special Constable Sergeant Jeremiah Koh trying to stop Madam Lee from transferring money to the "kidnapper".PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER
Mr Jufri Arshad, the SMRT senior station manager at Raffles Place MRT station, had called the police.
Mr Jufri Arshad, the SMRT senior station manager at Raffles Place MRT station, had called the police.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

(THE NEW PAPER) - For one-and-a-half hours, out of fear, she stayed on the phone with a stranger.

"If you hang up, your son's head will roll," the caller, whom she believed to be a kidnapper, told her in Mandarin.

Scared out of her wits, Madam Lee (not her real name), said: "I started crying the moment I heard that my son was held hostage.

"I was ready to give them money in exchange for his safety."

The mother of three, who is in her 60s, almost fell prey to a kidnapping scam on Oct 21.

Speaking to The New Paper a week after the incident, she said the harrowing experience began with a call from an unknown number.

It was about 9.45am and Madam Lee, who is in the service line, was in the vicinity of her Raffles Place office with three colleagues.

She said in Mandarin: "I don’t usually take calls from unknown numbers. But I did that day because I thought it might have been my second son, who is overseas."

A seemingly familiar voice came on. It sounded like her elder son, who is 36.

"Ma, someone is beating me up! Help me!" the voice cried, before another male voice hastily took over.

"Your son caught us doing something illegal and now we need $15,000 to run away," said the man, who, Madam Lee thought, was the kidnapper.

DANGER

He also threatened to hurt her son if she hung up on him.

Tears sprang to Madam Lee’s eyes as she tried to make sense of the situation.

"My mind went blank and I was so shocked," said Madam Lee, who also has a daughter.

"The kidnapper told me to hurry up, or my son's life would be in danger. I remember thinking to myself that if money could solve the problem, I wouldn't mind giving it."

Still on the phone, Madam Lee walked to the nearest ATM at Raffles Place MRT station and started pacing around the area.

She realised that her card's credit limit allowed her to transfer only $2,000 to the "kidnapper's" bank account — an amount he readily accepted despite the huge dip.

Just before she inserted her card into the ATM, she was stopped by a group of Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) officers.

It turned out that one of Madam Lee’s colleagues, who realised what was happening, approached Mr Jufri Arshad, a senior station manager at Raffles Place MRT station, for help.

Mr Jufri, 49, and Madam Lee’s colleague then rushed to the row of ATMs, where they found Madam Lee.

They pretended to do maintenance checks while assessing the situation.

"Even though I was alarmed, I knew I had to stay composed. I also didn't want to approach her immediately because I was afraid the kidnappers might be watching," Mr Jufri said.

He immediately informed SMRT’s Command Control Centre and sought permission to call the police.

"The safety of the passengers is my No. 1 priority and that is why I knew I had to act quickly," Mr Jufri said.

Five minutes later, he took four TransCom officers to Madam Lee.

Special Constable Sergeant (SC Sgt) Jeremiah Toh, 21, the leader of the team, was forced to think on his feet as kidnapping cases rarely feature in TransCom officers' list of duties.

Noting that Madam Lee was on the phone, he whipped out a notebook from his pocket and began communicating with her by writing.

Initially, Madam Lee was a little uncooperative, he said, adding that it frustrated him a little.

"She actually didn’t want the police to interfere in her matter. She started walking around back and forth (the area with the ATMs).

"At one point, she insisted she wanted to transfer the money, but I told her not to transfer anything and to wait a while," he said.

As SC Sgt Toh dug out more information from Madam Lee, alarm bells rang: Why was the "kidnapper" willing to accept $2,000 in place of the initial ransom of $15,000?

The fact that the "kidnapper" seemed so patient also seemed suspicious.

STALLING

Meanwhile, not knowing what to do, Madam Lee started wandering around the MRT station. Still on the phone with the "kidnapper", she went onto the street level, hoping to stall for time and figure out a solution.

The TransCom officers trailed her, making sure she did not make the bank transfer.

What convinced Madam Lee to work with SC Sgt Toh was when he wrote: "If you cooperate with me, your son will be safe."

After getting her son’s mobile number from her, SC Sgt Toh liaised with the Central Police Division, where an investigating officer called the number.

"(The investigating officer) called back, saying that Madam Lee's son is perfectly safe, and instructed me to tell her to hang up immediately and not to pick up any more of their calls," he said.

It was only after Madam Lee rang her son that she believed it was all a scam. By then, it was already close to 11.30am.

More than a week has passed since the scam, but the incident still plays in her mind every night.

She said: "Come to think of it, there were some tell-tale signs that showed it was a scam. I remember speaking in dialect. Usually, my son would reply in dialect, but that day, the person on the phone didn't."

She was unaware of the pivotal role that SMRT’s Mr Jufri had played behind the scenes in alerting the police until the day she spoke to TNP, when she met him and thanked him.

Mr Jufri, a father of three, simply smiled and said: "It's okay, don't worry."

He said he had stepped in to help because he understood Madam Lee's distress.

"I cannot imagine being in her shoes at that time. I'm a parent myself and I know I would do anything it takes to make sure my children are safe," he said.


How kidnapping scams work

The scammer usually claims that the victim's child has been kidnapped and will demand for money to be remitted or transferred as ransom, said a police spokesman.

"They make their ruse believable by including cries for help in the background," said the spokesman.

"During the conversation, the scammers will not allow their victims to speak with their loved ones who had supposedly been kidnapped.

"In recent cases, scammers had mostly requested for the victims to transfer the money to a local bank account through the ATM."

Retired police office Lionel De Souza, who has 27 years of experience, said that the first thing victims should do is to stay engaged on the phone and try to signal for help to someone in the vicinity.

For parents with young children, dry runs can be conducted regularly to ensure everyone is aware of the steps to take when facing such situations.

They can also establish a code word that can be said in times of danger, so that they will know if the voice on the other end of the phone is their child.