Anti-Scam Centre recovers over $21.2m from cases such as love scams and bogus e-commerce dealings

The Singapore Police Force's Anti-Scam Centre has handled more than 8,600 scam reports in the one year since its establishment. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - A Korean boyfriend working as a doctor in a Malaysian hospital in dire need of help. A mysterious, swoon-worthy American-Chinese man sending expensive gifts from abroad. And closer to home: the promise of undying love after a romantic, whirlwind proposal from an eligible Malaysian bachelor.

These are not cliches from soap operas, but stories of profiles carefully crafted by online scammers to trick gullible women into parting with not only months of their time and affection, but also their money.

What these cases also have in common is that they were all cracked by the Singapore Police Force's Anti-Scam Centre (ASC) - which has handled more than 8,600 scam reports in the one year since its establishment.

The ASC has also frozen more than 6,100 bank accounts and recovered more than $21.2 million that scammers based both locally and internationally might have otherwise made off with.

This amount recovered is equivalent to around 40 per cent of some $52 million in funds that scammers attempted to pilfer in the cases that the ASC has handled since it started operating on June 18, 2019.

The remaining 60 per cent of funds has not been recovered.

"These results affirm the close partnership between the police and our stakeholders, and that fighting scams is a community effort," said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Aileen Yap, assistant director of the specialised commercial crime division at the Commercial Affairs Department.

Some of the methods ASC has used to stop scammers in their tracks include an automated system that can log and transmit information on scams and scammers in real time, coupled with its cooperation with banks to promptly freeze accounts and retrieve bank account holders' particulars whenever unusual transactions are detected.

This network of 11 banks that the ASC works with includes DBS, OCBC and United Overseas Bank. The help of banks resulted in the centre being able to nab a 39-year-old man involved in a massive e-commerce scam in mid-March, that involved the bogus sale of surgical masks and hand sanitisers.

The scam involved a French pharmaceutical company that was deceived into transferring around €6.64 million (S$10.7 million) to a Singapore bank account to pay for a large shipment of surgical masks and hand sanitisers.

The ASC managed to retrieve more than $6.4 million worth of funds on the same day, its biggest recovery so far.

Around $5.3 million worth of scammed monies were recovered by UOB, which was alerted to the transaction at around 7am on March 14. Within minutes, the bank managed to trace and freeze the scammer's account.

Mr Richard Soh, head of investigation at UOB's integrated fraud management department, said that scammers now pose a bigger threat, as they have developed sophisticated methods to both conduct the scam and cover their tracks.

For instance, one syndicate might have multiple accounts to withdraw money from and various money outflows, making them harder to detect.

"As much as the information we gather from the police is valuable, we also try to go further within a limited period of time to establish the network of scammers.

"We also use technology on our end to pinpoint scammers in a timely way - and we rely greatly as well on the experience of our team to investigate these financial crimes," said Mr Soh.

The agency also works to intercept and disrupt scammers by collaborating with telcos like Singtel, StarHub, and M1 to terminate mobile lines, with 1,500 local lines suspected to be used by scammers being terminated between January and June this year.

As for love scams, the ASC has also managed on multiple occasions to foil some within a day of the cases coming to its attention.

An example was a case involving three women that the ASC was alerted to on June 17 this year.

Two of the women - a 58-year-old known as Ms Tan and a 50-year-old known as Ms Lim - were attempting to transfer $3,500 and $2,300 respectively to help their online lovers pay off "customs charges" for the gifts they were supposedly being sent.

Ms Tan thought that she was receiving a present from abroad from an American-born Chinese online lover, but it was really a scammer using pictures of a Korean man that were stolen off a public Instagram profile.

A 38-year-old woman known as Ms Koh had also been duped into being a money mule for the same syndicate - receiving and transferring monies on behalf of the scammers.

Ms Koh ended up remitting around $5,300, that had been deposited into her account from unknown sources, to an overseas bank account on behalf of the scammer.

She was convinced that she was helping to accept and transfer money to her "Korean doctor boyfriend" working in a Malaysian hospital and in urgent need of money due to various fictitious mishaps during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ASC managed to recover the $2,300 transferred by Ms Lim, and also managed to talk the other women out of giving the scammers more cash.

Though the case was cracked within a day, the time and energy involved in the months that scammers set aside just to cultivate these false personas and deepen their bogus relationships with their victims represents a shift in potential scam tactics that could be studied, said the ASC's investigators.

"Moving forward, the ASC will continue to strengthen our detection capabilities, as well as enhance our collaboration with more stakeholders and foreign law enforcement agencies, to disrupt scammers' operations and mitigate victims' losses," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Yap said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.