SINGAPORE - He was told over the phone by someone claiming to be a court official that he was involved in illegal money laundering activities, and while John (not his real name) knew he had done nothing wrong, fear set in.
After a series of phone calls with the "court official" as well as "police officers" and even an "auditor" claiming to be from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the 58-year-old, who works in financial services, grew so worried he gave up personal information, including his bank account details.
Using his banking credentials, the scammers transferred $93,000 out of his account, and it would have been much more if not for a member of the DBS anti-scam team, who flagged the initial transaction as suspicious.
John, who is married with two children in their 20s, had fallen victim to a government official impersonation scam.
In response to The Straits Times’ queries, the police said 996 government official impersonation scam cases were reported in the first half of this year. Victims of such scams were cheated of $25.2 million.
Recalling the incident in June, John said last Friday (Aug 26): "The scammers had Singaporean accents. It also seemed like they were authority figures I could trust. It was all very convincing."
He added: "The 'court official' first accused me of money laundering activities that were carried out through a company which I set up. When I told him I had no knowledge of such activities, he transferred me to a 'police officer' who said he needed my information."
Hoping to the resolve the matter quickly, John, who has lived in Singapore for 16 years, took a photo of his employment pass card and sent it to the scammer.
"He then sent me a very official-looking court document for the offences I'd been accused of and said due the seriousness of the offences, the police would be at my home that evening to arrest me," John said.
"I was extremely fearful. There was also this time pressure. If I didn't get my name cleared by then, I was going to spend an evening in a jail cell."
John said the scammers used the tactic of confusion, transferring him to different authority figures, including a court official, a junior police officer, a senior police inspector and a financial auditor who claimed to be from the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
He eventually handed over his DBS banking credentials to the scammers for inspection.
"I was told not to speak to anyone about this - not my employer, not my wife. Otherwise it would jeopardise the legitimacy of the financial review. They said not to talk to the police or any banks about this as they suspected that the criminals involved in the money laundering activities were employees of the bank.
"At that point I was even wondering if I was being followed or watched, so I took their instructions very seriously," said John.
The scammers used his banking credentials to transfer $93,000 from his account and attempted a second transfer of $97,800.
Ms Elaine Tan, a member of the DBS anti-scam team, said the bank's fraud surveillance systems flagged the second transaction as suspicious.
"The biggest red flag was that John wasn't aware of the $93,000 transfer when I spoke to him over the phone to verify the transaction," Ms Tan said.
"In fact, he claimed that he did not access his DBS internet banking that day, let alone add a new payee or make a funds transfer."
Believing John had been scammed, Ms Tan informed the Anti-Scam Centre.
Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Simon Lam, a senior investigation officer at the Anti-Scam Centre, said subsequent transfers of around $1 million were in the process of being transferred from John's account at the time.
He contacted John and took two hours to convince him that he had been scammed.
"(We finally) achieved a breakthrough with the use of a news article which elaborated on the modus operandi of a government official impersonation scam, which was similar to what the victim experienced," said ASP Lam.
Subsequent transfer attempts by the scammers were halted and the first transfer of $93,000 was also recovered.
ASP Lam added: “This is a testament of the strong collaborative relationship between DBS and the Anti-Scam Centre in our capabilities to respond swiftly to scam incidents and underscores our commitment to protect the community.”
John is grateful that the money he saved for retirement remains intact.
“I had seen the advisories on scams. Despite that, the speed at which the events unfolded after the first call got me sucked in. I didn’t stop to think... It was the ultimate act of stupidity for me to fall for this,” he said.