Man who pocketed $81,000 from online persona loses appeal

Court rules a person can be guilty of CBT even if the identity of entrusting party is unknown

A person can be found guilty of criminal breach of trust (CBT) even if he misappropriated property entrusted to him by someone whose actual identity remains unknown, the High Court has clarified.

Justice Vincent Hoong also made clear in his judgment on Monday that it was not necessary to prove that the entrusting party was the legal owner of the property in question.

The ruling came as Justice Hoong dismissed an appeal by Raj Kumar Brisa Besnath, who was sentenced to 13 months' jail for pocketing $81,000 he received from an online persona who had asked him to deliver the cash in person to a third party in Malaysia.

The judge rejected his lawyer's argument that no CBT was committed because the online persona was a fictitious character that was invented to deceive and defraud people, including him.

According to Raj Kumar, he started communicating with "Maria Lloyd" by e-mail in 2012 and became interested in her. He said he remitted $1,200 to her after she asked for money to meet him, but she did not come to Singapore.

Maria later asked him to receive a sum of money and take it to Malaysia himself.

On March 9, 2013, Raj Kumar collected an envelope containing $81,000 in thousand-dollar notes from an intermediary, Ms Melody Choong.

Ms Choong had earlier collected the envelope from a Mr Sie Min Jeong, who had received the funds in his bank account. However, Raj Kumar did not take the money to Malaysia as instructed.

Mr Sie made a police report on March 24, 2013, after the bank told him he needed to return the funds to the remitter.

During Raj Kumar's trial, a district court heard that the police believed Maria was a "phantom" and that a group of overseas scammers was behind the transactions.

In his judgment, Justice Hoong noted that under Section 405 of the Penal Code, CBT is committed when a person who is "entrusted with property" subsequently deals with it in a dishonest manner.

He said it was clear the object of the provision was to punish an accused person's dishonesty in betraying the terms of entrustment.

From the plain language of the provision, the identity of the entrusting party is not an element of the offence, said Justice Hoong.

"With this in mind, it becomes clear that the appellant's suggestion for the identity of the entrusting party to form an element of CBT is an unprincipled addition to literal language of section 405 of the Penal Code."

He cited an example, that even if donors to crowdfunding campaigns chose to remain anonymous, there was still an entrustment of monies to be used for a specific purpose.

The judge said a person can be said to be entrusted with property even if he has been deceived as to the true identity of the entrusting party.

In the current case, Justice Hoong accepted the prosecution's argument that Maria had possessory rights to the money, despite her actual identity being unknown.

The judge said Maria had the authority to entrust the money to Raj Kumar, who knew he was to deal with it according to her instructions.

Thus, the act of pocketing the money, in breach of the terms of the entrustment, was a dishonest misappropriation, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2021, with the headline Man who pocketed $81,000 from online persona loses appeal. Subscribe