Senior IT professional falls for tech support scam, nearly losing $180,000

Mr KK was asked to sign in to his bank account so that "Eric Lewis" could secure his banking access on the computer. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE -Last December, Mr KK (not his real name) thought he was helping the Singapore Government in a secretive operation to catch hackers.

The permanent resident was led to believe that by transferring $180,000 to a Hong Kong bank account, he could help the authorities track down and nab criminals who had stolen the personal information of many victims.

As it turned out, the senior IT professional had himself fallen prey to a tech support scam.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday (Jan 6), Mr KK, who is in his 50s, said he was first contacted by a man claiming to be a Singtel employee on Dec 16.

The man, who gave his name as "Alex Murphy", told Mr KK over the phone that his router had been hacked and anyone could connect to his network.

To gain Mr KK's trust, the scammer asked him to check his router's network ID number and read it aloud to him.

"He was not pushy and was very calm. I could not sense anything wrong," said Mr KK.

Claiming that further investigation was necessary, the first scammer told Mr KK that another Singtel staff would contact him shortly.

Going by the name "Paul Thomas", the second scammer told Mr KK that his work computer had been compromised. He convinced Mr KK to download the monitoring software TeamViewer so that he could check the external IP addresses that might lead to the hackers.

Little did Mr KK know that once these applications are installed, the scammers can remotely access the victims' computers and transfer money out of their bank accounts.

A third scammer, "Eric Lewis", was then introduced to Mr KK the next day as a Cyber Police Agency officer. There is no such organisation in Singapore.

Mr KK was asked to sign in to his bank account so that "Eric Lewis" could secure his banking access on the computer.

Unbeknownst to him, the scammers had transferred $180,000 from one of his bank accounts to an OCBC one.

"Eric Lewis" then claimed that hackers had hijacked his bank account for money-laundering purposes.

Mr KK was led to believe that by transferring the money to a HSBC bank account in Hong Kong, he would be able to help the agency trace the hackers' location.

When Mr KK went to the bank's branch in Clementi on Dec 18 to do the telegraphic transfer, an OCBC staff declined to transfer the sum which Mr KK claimed was for family maintenance.

Bank teller Chua Wen Xin, 25, said she was suspicious because when she probed further, Mr KK refused to divulge how he was related to the recipient.

"He said he preferred not to reveal (these details) and (asked) me to do the transfer right now," she said.

On the same day , OCBC alerted the Anti-Scam Centre of the case and police officers visited the man's home to advise him against transferring the money.

(From left) ASP Paige Tan, Senior Staff Sergeant Mazniyante Binte Abdul Rashid, OCBC service officer Jayce Lim and OCBC bank teller Chua Wen Xin at the Anti-Scam Centre at the Police Cantonment Complex. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Mr KK was initially hostile towards the police officers but eventually came around after he checked his bank account and realised that the scammers had transferred the sum from one of his accounts to another.

Reflecting on his experience, Mr KK said: "Next time, I will ask (tech support staff) for some proof of identity and meet them face to face."

In the first half of 2020, there were 313 cases of tech support scams reported to the police, more than 10 times the 30 cases in the same period in 2019. Victims lost a total of $14.9 million, up from $340,000 in the same period in 2019.

That makes tech support scams the second costliest scams here last year after investment scams, which cheated victims of $22.3 million.

Meanwhile, the largest amount lost in a single scam case in the first half of 2020 was $958,000.

In an advisory on tech support scams, the police said on Wednesday that members of the public can take the following actions if they suspect that they have been targeted by scammers:

- They should log off and shut down their computers to limit any further activities that the scammers can execute.

- Report the incident to their bank to stop further activities on their bank accounts.

- Change their iBanking credentials and remove any unauthorised payees that may have been added to their bank accounts.

The police said: "No telecommunication service provider or government agency will request for your personal details or access to your online bank account over the phone."

Those who find themselves in such situations can call the official hotline of their telecommunication service provider to verify the facts.

They can also talk to a trusted friend or relative before acting on such instructions.

The public should also refrain from providing their personal details such as bank account numbers, credit card details and one-time passwords over the phone to unfamiliar or unverified persons.

For scam-related advice, the public can call the anti-scam helpline at 1800-722-6688 or visit this website.

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