SINGAPORE - After six months of trying to pay back banks, moneylenders and creditors, Christine (not her real name) finally started bankruptcy proceedings over a huge debt. The 37-year-old Malaysian nurse working in Singapore is a victim of a pig-butchering scam.
This hybrid of romance and investment scams see fraudsters pretend to be a love interest to swindle unsuspecting partners.
With a total debt of $270,000 and no recourse, Christine attended a court hearing on Thursday (Feb 17) to declare bankruptcy.
"If possible, I wouldn't want to declare bankruptcy, but it's a better option for me now," said Christine, who is originally from Penang, Malaysia, breaking down in tears over the phone.
Having been apart from her family in Malaysia because of Covid-19 related travel restrictions, the loneliness drove her to seek companionship in a mystery stranger who sent her a direct message on Instagram.
The stranger claimed to be a 34-year-old Shanghainese interior designer, based in Vancouver, Canada.
A friendship quickly sparked, and they were soon talking daily via texts and voice calls.
He seemed legitimate enough, sharing pictures and videos from his daily life - whether it was pictures of his meals, or him skiing while on holiday.
"He kept saying to me 'why don't you find a partner, you don't want to end up stuck in an old folks' home alone without a family'," said Christine.
"I only wanted to remain as friends with him since he was a free-thinker... but when he gave in and said he would follow me to church, that's when I gave in too."
Three weeks into the conversation, he brought up investments.
She started off small, and eventually ended up investing US$5,000 (S$6,700) in the first month.
In the midst of it, she had lost $30,000 in a separate loan scam.
Her new love interest, who consoled her through this loss, suggested that she could make back the $30,000 "pretty easily", if she invested in his platform.
He even pumped $10,000 into her account to convince her.
He reeled her in further, promising to fly over from Vancouver in October, to make it in time for a surgical procedure for her heart that she had to undergo.
She pumped in around $150,000, borrowed via bank loans, in order to keep the investments rolling. He also helped her with purchasing and selling shares.
"When I saw the profits reaching the target of $30,000, I wanted to pull out because it was very stressful to keep borrowing money and making enough to pay it back with interest," she said.
"I even told him I wanted to break up," she said.
But the scammer threatened to take his life. "He said to me, 'Why are you leaving me? We've been through all this, we still have a long way to our future.'"
He also offered to resign from his job and move to Singapore, and get a permanent resident pass via his friend's company.
Convinced, she stayed on. The promise of the relationship also drove her to invest more money.
She funded this by going to moneylenders, and selling her car.
"I also managed to borrow from friends and family also saying it was for urgent use... They know my character and that I'd never borrowed money before," she said.
Taking out a mortgage on her house in Malaysia was the last resort.
In September last year - her last investment - she pumped in $70,000. At that point, she had invested a total of $240,000 on the platform.
It was her father who warned her about investment scams, telling her she needed to make sure she could withdraw her funds.
He sent her a link to an article on a Chinese website about pig-butchering scams, about a woman who had lost around $500,000.
When she read the article, she got a shock. It had photos of the same man she had been speaking to for the last four months.
The red flags started to make sense.
The investment platform she was on could be accessed only by a dedicated website and not via an established app or trading platform like Kraken, Gemini or Crypto.com
Also he did not want to do video calls with her. He said: "We have to keep some surprise for when I see you."
When she confronted him about it, he denied it and said he was disappointed with her accusation.
In a panic, she then tried to withdraw $140,000 she had in the account but was told by the customer service site that they did not have a merchant online that could do the transaction. She hit this wall several more times.
When she eventually got one online with his assistance, they told her that in order to withdraw such a large amount and for "safety purposes", she would have to top up the funds and invest a further $240,000.
Upon realising that her account was frozen, she found Singapore-based non-profit Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso) online, which confirmed that she had been scammed. They advised her not to top up the funds.
Christine she hit her lowest point in September to December last year, when she contemplated suicide.
"Banks were calling me daily at work," she said. "I got so stressed when I was unable to pick up their calls."
Given the amount of money that she owed, she did not qualify for the Debt Repayment Scheme, which assists debtors with a regular income and debts not exceeding $150,000 to avoid bankruptcy.
In the last five months, she has attempted to pay back as much of her debts as possible, even taking up part-time jobs and working on her days off and public holidays.
However, her salary of around $4,000 a month is barely enough to cover the amount owed - $1,200 a month as part of a company loan and $1,000 a month to pay off moneylenders.
The rental for her current shared housing in a HDB flat takes up another $850 per month, while she pays $700 a month for a property in Penang.
This leaves her with all of $250 a month for any other expenses.
Her last contact with the scammer was in October last year, after which she made a police report.
However, she has no means of recouping her losses.
Christine hopes that by sharing her story, and the modus operandi of scammers, others will not make the same mistakes she made.
"It's a huge syndicate, it's hard to take them down... but (when I wanted to take my life) I realised what I can do is help create awareness," she said.
"That's the only reason that I'm still living. I don't want it to go to waste."