SINGAPORE - It had all the qualities of a fairy-tale romance to Ms Cassandra Tan (not her real name) - meeting an eligible American-Chinese businessman online, and falling in love, with the promise of a "happy ever after".
But she was just being led down the garden path.
Over two years, Ms Tan, a clerk in her 50s, was not only cheated of around $80,000 by her online "lover", but she had also been manipulated into becoming a money mule for a scammer, laundering $13,500 on his behalf.
She first met the man on Facebook in mid-2018. He claimed to be a 59-year-old American Chinese businessman working for "Keppel", who wanted to come to Singapore to see her.
But the man proceeded to spin tall tales regarding his "business". He claimed, among other things, that his money had been "taken by the CIA", and that he and his staff were "trapped at Customs and needed money to get out". The man also sent her images of "himself" lying in hospital, feigning serious medical emergencies.
"I started falling in love with him. I also took pity on him and wanted to help," Ms Tan said.
This ruse went on until October 2019, during which she transferred $80,000 of her savings to him in multiple transactions varying from $2,000 to $5,000.
But it was not over. The man asked her in May this year to allow him to use her account to purchase bitcoin credits. He made three transfers of $5,000 to her account between May and June, telling her that she could keep $500 per transaction as long as she bought $4,500 bitcoin credits on his behalf.
"Every transaction, I kept $500 for my own usage. As he owed me so much money, I thought it is only right for me to keep $1,500 for myself," Ms Tan said.
The Singapore Police Force stepped in when a series of suspicious transfers were detected between Ms Tan's account and other local bank accounts. It later came to light that she had not only been the victim of an Internet love scam, but that she was also being made use of to launder illegally obtained monies.
Ms Tan was one of 2,500 people investigated between January and August this year for acting as money mules. Investigations on her case have concluded, and she has been issued an advisory.
"When scammers forge relationships with their targets and build trust over time, it becomes easy to get someone to give up their bank information or transfer funds," said Deputy Superintendent (DSP) Jane Lim from the Commercial Affairs Department.
The police have also seen other cases where money mules have landed themselves in hot water for being part of a larger network, sometimes consisting of different layers of money mules who launder the criminal proceeds to make these transactions look legitimate.
For instance, "Nelson", a 26-year-old Singaporean man, was sentenced to 10 months in jail for using his bank account to receive $36,400 between March and April 2017 via 27 bank transfers and cash deposits. He was roped in to being a money mule after procuring sexual services from an unknown woman on online classifieds website Locanto, and subsequently made multiple cash transfers on behalf of a man who he believed was her "boss".
This was done by converting $34,489.25 into Alipay credits for this "boss" over 63 transactions. Nelson then kept the balance for his personal use.
DSP Lim cautioned against agreeing to receive or transfer any money on behalf of others, especially if the sources of the funds are unknown.
"Never share your one-time PIN, or allow anyone to use your bank account, e-wallet, or cryptocurrency account, as you are responsible for all the transactions made through your accounts," she said.
For acting as a money mule to help a criminal retain benefits from illicit activities, one can be fined up to $500,000, jailed for up to 10 years, or both.