Internet love scams in Singapore cost victims $33.1 million in 2020

Love scams are believed to have first surfaced in 2008 and victims are cheated by someone with whom they have formed an online relationship with. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

SINGAPORE - Love scams, in which fraudsters steal hearts and empty bank accounts, have remained a persistent problem in Singapore in the past decade.

They are believed to have first surfaced in 2008, and victims are cheated by someone with whom they have formed an online relationship with.

There were 822 love scam cases in 2020, a more than 13-fold increase from the 62 cases in 2011.

The amount cheated has also grown, from $2.3 million in total in 2011 to $12 million in 2015 and $33.1 million in 2020.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said love scams are seductive because people innately crave companionship.

He said: "Some people find it harder to find love interests, especially during the pandemic, and scammers prey on this void that potential victims are looking to fill." 

Dr Lim added that some of his patients fell for the ruse after scammers spent a lot of time gaining their trust.

"They think that scammers would not bother to get to know them over an extended period, so when they are shown a lot of care and concern, they believe it is a real relationship," he said.

But it is e-commerce scams that consistently top the list with the most number of cases reported each year.

There were 3,354 cases reported in 2020, a 55 per cent increase from 2018.

In the first half of last year, $2.4 million was lost to e-commerce scams, with electronic goods and gaming-related items most commonly involved.

With e-commerce sales in Singapore expected to grow to US$10 billion ($13.4 billion) by the end of 2026, according to a recent report by Facebook and management consultancy Bain & Company, there are concerns the amount cheated would climb.

Mr Amos Tan, assistant director of Singapore Polytechnic's School of Business, said the pandemic has driven many people to shop online, and e-commerce platforms are trying to retain customers with frequent promotions.

"The shift in our lifestyles has provided ample opportunities for scammers. E-commerce scams are not only expected to rise but also more variants will emerge," he said.

Despite efforts to educate the public about scams, Dr Lim said not everyone will synthesise the information and apply it to their lives.

"Even if people read about others getting scammed in the news, they might not identify with it because they don't think they will be conned," he said.

Rebecca (not her real name), a 42-year-old accountant, did not think she would fall victim to a scam. But in 2020, she lost her life savings of $250,000 to scammers behind a China officials ruse.

They had claimed her bank account was involved in a case of money laundering in China. Posing as officers from DBS Bank, the swindlers called her to say that she had an outstanding credit card bill from buying a necklace in Beijing.

When she denied making the purchase, the call was "diverted" to a police officer purportedly working in Beijing, who claimed that she had been charged with money laundering offences.

One of the scammers even donned a police uniform in a video call to her.

"They furnished court documents with my name to show that I had been charged with money laundering. It was frightening and very real," said Rebecca, who is a Singaporean.

Desperate to clear her name, she followed the scammers' instructions to create a UOB account, transferred all her savings there, and handed her banking credentials over to "aid investigations".

Rebecca realised her account had been emptied only when police officers in Singapore called her on Jan 7 last year to inform her that she had fallen victim to a China officials impersonation scam.

She said she did not receive an SMS one-time password (OTP) on her mobile phone before the six-figure sum was withdrawn from her account.

One possible explanation is that the scammers used her login details and changed the phone number associated with her account so that the OTP was sent to their mobile instead."All my retirement savings were gone in flash. I was so afraid of being in trouble with the Chinese authorities that I followed their instructions blindly," she said.

7 common types of scams

1. Business e-mail impersonation scam

Scammers pose as the victim’s business partner, supplier or employee and ask for funds to be transferred to a new bank account. The e-mail usually sport the same business logos, links to the company’s website or names of existing employees.

2. Investment scam

Fake financial professionals entice victims to invest via websites or apps, getting them to transfer money to unknown bank accounts and pay fees to reap profits. The scammers would disappear and victims are unable to withdraw their money.

3. Internet love scam

Scammers masquerade as attractive individuals online and approach victims on social media. After gaining the victim’s trust, they ask for money as proof of love or claim to need money to overcome certain difficulties.

4. China officials impersonation scam

Scammers impersonate bank staff or officials and trick victims into giving their personal information and banking credentials after accusing them of committing a criminal offence in China, such as money laundering.

5. Tech support scam

Scammers pretend to be from reputable firms and lie that victims’ devices have problems they can fix. They get victims to download software like TeamViewer, giving them access to the computer and the money in the victims’ bank accounts.

6. Loan scam

Scammers pretend to be licensed moneylenders and contact victims via SMS or WhatsApp. Victims are told to pay a small percentage of the loan amount as administrative fees. The scammer becomes uncontactable after payment is made.

7. Job scam

Scammers advertise part-time jobs on social media offering commissions for tasks on a website or mobile app. After victims get a small payout, they are asked to transfer money to get more tasks. But the scammers disappear after the larger transfers.


Six anti-scam principles to follow

The Home Team Behavioural Sciences Centre developed a 6S Anti-Scam Self-Protection Principles to help Singaporeans defend themselves against scams. They are:

  1. Spot the signs - Recognise the tactics that scammers use.
  2. Stop and think - Ask yourself or others if a statement, message or job offer could be true.
  3. Slow down, don't rush - Do not rush into providing your personal or banking details.
  4. Speak to others - Check with others to verify the authenticity of a claim before doing anything.
  5. Safeguard personal details and passwords - Never disclose personal information, even if the request appears to be legitimate.
  6. Seek help - Talk to friends or family members for advice or support if you have been impacted by a scam.
SPH Brightcove Video
Cheow Sue-Ann runs through the latest scourge: job scams. Scammers stole close to $1 billion in 5.5 years from 2016.

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