Covid-19 crimes: How some are adapting and finding new ways to scam, cheat and profit

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

The Covid-19 circuit breaker has been disruptive for many organisations - including those involved in vice and crime.

It is hardly business as usual, with some flummoxed by the restrictions while others are adapting and finding new ways to scam, cheat and profit.

Gambling, for example, has gone underground with the closures of the casinos, the racing course and Singapore Pools outlets.

The police said they were aware of illegal gambling activities during this period, which began on April 7, and had conducted enforcement operations, with arrests made for gambling-related offences.

Drug addicts have also turned to alternatives as the street prices of some narcotics have increased because of a supply crunch from cross-border travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, scammers and loan sharks are trying to cash in on people's fears and vulnerabilities, with new scams and harassment tactics tied to the pandemic.

Vice activities also appear to be continuing, with paid sex advertised online, despite its potential for flouting safe distancing laws.

The police told The Straits Times that law and order continue to be maintained, "and this is no different from the pre-circuit breaker period".

When required, operations will be stepped up to curb criminal activity, the police said.

While it is reasonable to assume that crime rates may fall during the circuit breaker, with most people staying home, there are other factors that may push individuals to crime or illegal activities, said Assistant Professor Olivia Choy, who specialises in criminology at Nanyang Technological University.

She said: "We can't negate the fact that there have been negative psychological effects from social distancing, such as confusion, anger and anxiety. Combined with a lack of healthy coping mechanisms, this can lead an individual to engage in criminal activities, among other factors."

Support from mental health services or from peers and family would be valuable to individuals who are at risk of turning to crime now, she added.

The Straits Times' crime team looks at how some crime and vice activities have evolved in the last month and a half.

Drug syndicates get crafty as supply disrupted, prices spike

Border closures and movement restrictions in many countries to stem the spread of Covid-19 are also hindering the global supply of illegal drugs, with law-enforcement agencies seeing an increase in street prices of some drugs as a result.

 

One therapist from a private addictions clinic told The Straits Times that more people are finding it harder to buy drugs and are coming forward for help, although the Institute of Mental Health said it was unable to comment on trends.

"Anecdotally, the supplies of diverted medication such as opioids and benzodiazepines coming from Malaysia are now in shorter supply, and their costs have increased," said Mr Andrew da Roza, a psychotherapist at Promises Healthcare. "Other drugs (cannabis, meth and heroin) similarly seem to have become more expensive, although supplies appear to be available."

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Illegal sex services continue as cash-strapped workers receive help

Temperature screening before paid sex: This is a precaution that a Telegram group chat advertising sexual services has imposed on its clients.

 

Illegal sex work has persisted, with services advertised online, despite safe distancing measures being flouted under the rules of the circuit breaker.

In a police operation held earlier this month, 30 women were arrested for suspected involvement in vice-related activities.

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Problem gambling pushed underground

With nowhere to go given the Covid-19 circuit breaker, most residents in the quiet Boon Lay neighbourhood had settled in for the night. But one resident and his friends invited some strangers - including The Straits Times - to a "friendly game" of Pok Deng, a Thai card game, at what looked to be a two-room flat last month.

 
 

Posing as an interested gambler, an ST reporter accepted the invitation and visited the premises for about 10 minutes. "There's nothing much to do at home, so we organised this. If not we'll be bored," one punter said, as he set up the game.

The reporter left before the session began. It was one of four different gambling sessions reporters were invited to attend that night.

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Loan sharks turn to new tactics to harass debtors

Loan sharks have been busy during the weeks of the circuit breaker, wasting no time in finding new, social distancing ways to harass their debtors to pay up.

 
 

Their intimidation tactics have ranged from bombarding households with unwanted deliveries, to sending unwitting runners to homes to do fake Covid-19 surveys.

When a caller asked to pay for his food order upon delivery, Thai eatery owner X.K. Zhou hesitated at first. Mr Zhou, 42, usually requests payment upfront for online orders, but the caller claimed he was having difficulties with the platform. Mr Zhou relented but it turned out to be a harassment ploy.

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Spike in online scams as people stay home

With his family of five cooped up at home, John (not his real name) decided to splurge last month on a Nintendo Switch game console from a seller on Carousell.

 

However, the 40-year-old, who works in sales, not only ended up $490 poorer but also had nothing to show for it.

John was one of hundreds of people to have fallen prey to e-commerce scams, which have spiked in the Covid-19 outbreak as more people carry out online transactions from home, said the police.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2020, with the headline 'Covid-19 crimes'. Subscribe