Phone scammers cheat elderly woman out of $100,000

DBS Branch Machines (BM) look like ATMs but allow up to $200,000 to be withdrawn at one go, with no daily withdrawal limit. This is unlike ATMs, which have a daily withdrawal limit of $3,000.
DBS Branch Machines (BM) look like ATMs but allow up to $200,000 to be withdrawn at one go, with no daily withdrawal limit. This is unlike ATMs, which have a daily withdrawal limit of $3,000.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Crooks told woman that she was being investigated for corruption

An elderly woman lost $100,000 in savings to phone scammers; and her daughter is partly blaming it on a new type of bank machine that allows up to $200,000 in cash to be drawn in one go.

Called Branch Machines (BM), the machines were introduced last year by DBS Bank in 14 of its branches.

They look like an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) and allow customers to carry out banking transactions such as cash deposit and withdrawal with help from its staff.

Up to $200,000 in cash can be taken out from a BM in one transaction and there is no daily withdrawal limit. For DBS/POSB ATMs, the maximum amount per transaction is $2,000 and its default daily withdrawal limit is $3,000 (see table).

The woman had gone to a BM to take out $100,000 in cash on April 19 and another $100,000 two days later upon instruction from scammers.

Earlier this month, the police said more than $4 million have been lost by victims of phone scams since March, in the more than 50 reports that they have received.

The victims got calls from scammers impersonating overseas officials, telling them that parcels containing illegal items had been shipped in their names.

Mrs C. Ong, 45, said her mother started getting such calls at home from April.

They claimed to be from the Chinese police and told the 78-year-old that she was being investigated for corruption. The scammers told her to buy a mobile phone so they could contact her directly. They asked for personal information and warned her against informing anyone.

Worried for her family's safety, she visited the nearby POSB branch at Marine Parade and was directed to a machine for cash withdrawal.

  • Ways to protect yourself from scammers

  • WHAT TO DO WHEN RECEIVING UNSOLICITED CALLS

    •Ignore the calls. Scammers may use Caller ID spoofing technology to mask the actual phone number and display a different one. Calls that appear to be from a local number may not be so. If you receive a suspicious call from a local number, hang up, wait five minutes, then call the number back to check the validity of the request.

    •Ignore instructions to remit or transfer money. No government agency will inform you to make a payment through a call, especially if it is to a third party's bank account.

    •Refrain from giving personal information and bank details, whether on a website or to callers over the phone. Personal information and bank details such as the Internet bank account username and password, or OTP code from a token, are useful to criminals.

    •Talk to a trusted friend or relative before you act. You may be overwhelmed by emotion and err in your judgment.

    •If you have information related to such crime or are in doubt, call the police hotline on 1800-2550-000, or dial 999 for urgent police assistance.

    TIPS ON SAFEGUARDING YOUR FUNDS

    •Be open with banks if you believe you are under threat. Bank staff are trained to spot red flags and can take measures to protect your funds if given sufficient information in a timely manner.

    •Do withdraw funds in the form of a cashier's order so that bank or branch staff can identify the beneficiary, which allows them to spot any red flags.

    •Joint-alternate accounts require only one account holder to effect a transaction. As an added precaution, you may wish to sign up for a joint-all account which requires approval from both account holders to withdraw funds. Or you may consider applying for power of attorney over your loved one's account for greater oversight.

    •Inform your bank immediately if you receive unsolicited calls or have disclosed your personal or bank information to such callers.

    •Source: Singapore Police Force, DBS Bank

Remittance firm sounded alert on large withdrawal

She took out $100,000 in cash and proceeded to a remittance agency in City Plaza to transfer the money to an account with the Bank of China, Beijing West Branch.

Two days later, she was pressured by the scammers to do another transfer so she went back to the same bank branch to take out another $100,000 from the BM.

She went to another remittance agency after the first agency declined to do a second transfer, saying the amount was too large over a short period of time.

The second remittance agency saw the huge amount of money and called her daughter, Mrs Ong, for verification.

That was when the family found out about the scam and made a police report.

"While we grieve at the loss of a huge sum of money to scammers and are working on my mother's emotional and mental aftercare, we hope the bank will tighten its processes in order to protect the vulnerable elderly," said Mrs Ong, a school administrator. "She performed two very unusual transactions, withdrawing $100,000 each time within three days, yet no alerts were raised or even a call made to the joint account holder to verify it."

Mrs Ong said alarm bells should have started ringing as her mother's largest withdrawal from POSB is $5,000 over the counter or less than $1,000 from the ATMs.

"It is very shocking that a remittance agent is able to spot an unusual transaction that POSB was not able to. I am also puzzled why there were no withdrawal limits in place at the machine."

Mrs Ong said she reported the matter to the bank and the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

They said they will investigate and that she had the option of going to the Financial Industry Disputes Resolution Centre for independent arbitration.

In response, a DBS spokesman said further customer authentication, such as querying the reasons for withdrawal, by its staff is required for large cash withdrawals via BMs. POSB is a subsidiary of DBS Group.

"The process is no different than if a customer makes the withdrawal via our branch counters," she said.

In the case of Mrs Ong's mother, the bank spokesman said its staff had engaged her both times. Each time she was queried, she said the cash was for home renovation.

Its staff recommended that she withdraw the funds in a cashier's order or a cheque.

An order would allow the bank to identify the beneficiary of the funds, which may have served as a red flag, while cheques can be transacted only locally and there is a delay in encashing it.

The bank said she insisted on a cash withdrawal. Said a bank spokesman: "According to our video footage and the four staff members who spoke to her, the customer was calm and composed in her interactions with our staff and showed no signs of duress.

"On the first occasion, our staff also expressed concern over her carrying such a large sum of money and were told by the customer that a family member would meet her outside the branch."

In response, Mrs Ong said the staff who attended to her mother were Malay and could not communicate well with her mother, who spoke mainly Mandarin.

She added: "Being stressed, she wasn't able to process and understand the information."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2016, with the headline 'Phone scammers cheat elderly woman out of $100,000'. Print Edition | Subscribe