$77b lost to scams worldwide in 2021 – up 16% from previous year

Victims in Singapore lost at least $633.3 million to scams in 2021, the police said in February. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Around US$55.3 billion ($77.2 billion) was lost to scams worldwide in 2021, according to a study done by non-profit organisation Global Anti Scam Alliance (Gasa) and data service provider ScamAdviser.

The figure was revealed by Gasa general manager Jorij Abraham during his opening speech on Wednesday at the Global Anti Scam Summit. The conference, held in the Netherlands, runs for two days.

The study – based on data collected from 48 countries including Singapore – found that the global amount lost in 2021 had risen by 15.7 per cent, from US$47.8 billion in 2020.

Victims in Singapore lost at least $633.3 million to scams in 2021, the police said in February.

Gasa brings together stakeholders such as policymakers, law enforcement agencies and cyber-security agencies to share knowledge on scams. ScamAdviser offers a service of helping people check if a website is a scam.

Speaking to a hybrid audience of over 300 attendees at the summit’s third iteration, Mr Abraham said online scams are among the most reported crimes in many countries including the United Kingdom, Russia and Singapore.

“Scams are growing, even in developing countries, because the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed people to go online, including those not experienced with using the Internet,” he said.

Investment scams, especially those involving cryptocurrency, are growing rapidly worldwide. In Singapore, investment scams accounted for the most amount of money stolen, with victims losing $190.9 million in total. The largest amount taken in a single case was $6.4 million.

Mr Abraham attributed the rise in such scams to high inflation, increasing cost of living and in some countries, high unemployment rates. “This is forcing people to look for new ways to invest or simply make ends meet. Despair makes bad counsel.”

A digital token inspired by the popular South Korean Netflix series Squid Game, for instance, scammed people of US$3.4 million in five days, he said.

The digital currency called Squid skyrocketed in price before losing all its value after its unknown creators cashed out the tokens late in 2021.

The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), which gave a presentation at the conference, said phishing scams hit an all-time high in the second quarter of 2022, with a record 1.09 million unique phishing sites found from April to June.

In comparison, there were some 1.02 million such sites from January to March, and about 888,000 from October to December 2021.

Phishing is a method of obtaining personal data, in which scammers pretend to be a legitimate organisation or a person they are not.

APWG is an international association comprising members from leading security companies and finance institutions such as McAfee and MasterCard.

Mr Foy Shiver, deputy secretary-general of APWG, said its report for the second quarter of 2022 found that scammers are also becoming greedier.

In business e-mail compromise scams, where scammers pretend to be the manager or director of a company to get victims to transfer them money, the average amount being asked for has increased to about US$109,000, from US$91,000 in the previous quarter.

Mr Shiver added that the scammers tend to go after medium-sized companies instead of larger ones, as smaller firms often do not have the budget to train employees to protect themselves against scams.

Scammers target the most vulnerable, said Mr Abraham, pointing to a recent case of a 65-year-old Japanese woman who was conned out of over US$30,000 by a fraudster posing as an astronaut.

The scammer told her he loved her and wanted to marry her, but needed the funds to help him get back to Earth.

In some cases, scammers do such a good job that it is hard to recognise a scam, said Mr Abraham.

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“It costs only about US$90 to buy a professional-looking investment website and with the rise of deep fakes, it is very easy for a scammer to create realistic illusions, such as your son or daughter calling you,” he added.

He noted that scammers are excellent marketeers who will exploit any crisis to cheat victims, such as asking for donations for those affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The bad news is that criminals are winning at the moment, as law enforcement agencies struggle to keep up with the increase in online fraud, said Mr Abraham.

He added: “Globally, only about 0.05 per cent of all cybercrimes are prosecuted. Unfortunately, there is no global police force to expedite nabbing perpetrators that are usually operating from another country.

“What can be done is for nations to share data with one another and make it easy for people to report scams.”

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