$6.5m lost in 6 months: More falling prey to job scams

Superintendent of Police Michelle Tay (right) said the pandemic has only aggravated the problem, with digital payments acting as a double-edged sword. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The number of reported job scams during the Covid-19 pandemic has skyrocketed, warned the police, as more people are lured by the convenience of easy jobs promising high commissions.

The revelation comes even as people are still reeling from the shock of at least $8.5 million that nearly 470 OCBC Bank customers lost last year. Some had savings in the six figures wiped out.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times last week, Superintendent of Police Michelle Tay, the head of the Anti-Scam Centre, said that police are seeing a continued increase in the number of victims falling prey to job scams.

This is despite outreach efforts being beefed up with more ammunition in the form of technology.

In the first six months of last year, there were 658 cases of job scams - a 16-fold increase from just 40 in the same period in 2020.

Victims of such scams lost about $6.5 million between January and June last year, up from about $60,000 in the same period the year before.

The largest sum lost by a single victim in a job scam in the first half of last year was about $676,000.

Supt Tay said the pandemic has only aggravated the problem, with digital payments acting as a double-edged sword.

She said: "During Covid-19, the use of contact-free digital payments increased.

"This enhances our convenience, but at the same time enhances the scammers' modes of operations. They can easily create pseudo bank accounts to move funds."

Supt Tay outlined the five types of job scams the centre has encountered in recent months, stressing that job scams are of particular concern as more people work from home.

The scams mostly involved victims being able to purportedly earn commissions by simply completing tasks on websites or mobile applications.

However, the victims would at some point be told they needed to transfer a sum of money to receive such tasks and get their payouts.

The first type involved victims being instructed to download unverified mobile applications.

They are tasked to transfer funds in the form of cryptocurrency into their purported job accounts and are promised commission for completing tasks that appear to help businesses.

Victims realise they have been scammed after they try to withdraw the commission from their accounts.

The second type appears to have evolved from the first - those who fall victim to the first and try to quit and cash out would be sent warning letters claiming to bear the letterheads of the local authorities.

Victims are pressured into making further transfers into bank accounts or cryptocurrency wallets or face legal action.

There are also scams that involve supposed affiliate marketing and the sale of movie tickets, operating in a similar fashion as the first type of scam.

The fifth and last type, which is the most recent to have emerged, appears to be the most insidious. In a warning earlier this month, the police said scammers invited victims to participate in jobs involving the sale of products on a fake mobile app called Shopee Pay.

The app, which is unrelated to the e-commerce platform Shopee, looks legitimate as scammers are spoofing an actual platform.

The unverified app is a spoof of Shopee’s real digital wallet called ShopeePay, which is accessed through the real Shopee app. Shopee does not have a standalone app for its digital wallet.

Within a month, at least 11 people had already lost more than $50,000 in total, after they were tricked into transferring funds to cryptocurrency wallets.

With fraudsters upping their game and the number of victims piling up, Supt Tay said, the authorities have turned to technology in their fight against scams.

"We have leveraged technology and are streamlining internal processes to help us cope with the workload."

For example, the Anti-Scam Centre has added robotic process automation to its arsenal, with the technology driving Project Combat (Centralised Operational Messaging Bot, Addressing Threats), which was launched on July 17 last year.

Through collaboration with the Singapore Police Force's intelligence and land division units, the centre is able to detect numerous potential victims of job scams.

SPH Brightcove Video
Officers from the Anti-Scam Division share the numerous challenges faced in their line of work. It's not just about stopping the scammers. One elderly victim who had fallen for a scam was provided support and counselling by officers.

It used to take an average of 45 minutes to contact and warn just one person.

Project Combat uses robotic process automation to send out targeted SMS advisories to select groups all at once, enabling them to reach hundreds of people in mere minutes.

The centre has conducted more than 6,900 interventions this way through Project Combat.

The technology has freed up more time and resources for officers to take on other important tasks such as fund tracing.

Supt Tay added that aside from job scams, Project Combat has been expanded to also tackle investment scams.

This is because potential victims of investment scams are reached by scammers in a similar fashion as those of job scams, with scammers sending unsolicited messages to them in large chat groups.

Similar automated warning messages the centre sends to potential victims of potential job scams can thus also be sent to potential victims of investment scams.

But there are limits to what can be done to recover funds victims transfer to scammers, many of whom are based overseas.

Supt Tay urged members of the public to heed the warnings of the authorities and to take the threat of scams seriously.

She said: "The earlier you report, the earlier we can take intervention action to intercept the funds.

"Everyone has a role to play to safeguard ourselves and our loved ones. Your vigilance is our first line of defence."

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