$43m lost to e-mail scams as cases hit 3-year high

Businesses in Singapore lost around $43 million last year to e-mail impersonation scams, with one case alone accounting for $5.7 million, said the Singapore Police Force yesterday.

The fast-growing scam involves hackers impersonating company executives or business partners in spoofed e-mails which closely resemble genuine e-mail addresses.

Such scams hit a record 328 cases in 2017 - the highest in three years. Police figures show 257 cases in 2016 with a total of $25 million in funds lost.

E-mail impersonators were the biggest culprits in scams involving at least $99 million last year. These scams involved e-commerce transactions, criminals posing as officials from China and people fleecing those looking for love online, among others.

Police had earlier revealed that the funds lost in Internet love scams also hit a record $37 million here last year, with one victim forking out almost $6 million to fraudsters. Such cases rose 29.9 per cent to 825 cases last year, up from 635 cases in 2016.

Hackers who use e-mails to dupe their victims often target businesses with frequent overseas dealings.

In March 2015, a foreign firm in Singapore was hit in this fashion. The 38-year-old general manager of the machinery trading business said the firm was corresponding with a supplier in Singapore when the scammers struck.

"They altered the e-mail a bit so it still looked like they were our (Singapore) supplier, and even copied the accountant of our real supplier in the e-mail thread," he told the media yesterday.

The firm transferred about €119,000 (S$193,890) to a fake account at a Polish bank, which was not detected by the firm's accountant as she was on leave. The money was meant for industrial equipment from Europe. The firm lodged a police report here within the same month.

Fortunately, the scammers could not access the funds. The general manager said the money was held by the Polish authorities because the "sum was abnormally large". With the help of the Singaporean and Polish authorities, the money was fully recovered in July 2017.

Another scam victim lost $3,000 this year after paying "taxes" on gifts her newfound Facebook friend claimed to have sent her from his home in the US. The money was paid to this friend.

She lodged a police report here on Jan 29, the same day she transferred the sum, and just eight days after first chatting with him. She did recover her money.

For more information on scams, visit scamalert.sg or call the Anti-Scam Hotline on 1800-722-6688. Anyone with information on such scams may call the police hotline on 1800-255-0000 or submit information online at www.police.gov.sg/iwitness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2018, with the headline '$43m lost to e-mail scams as cases hit 3-year high'. Print Edition | Subscribe