Student loses $500,000 to scammers claiming to be Chinese officials

Believing that she was under investigation by the Chinese authorities for being part of a money laundering syndicate, a 22-year-old student wired a total of $500,000 to scammers between Sept 2 and 7, 2019.

SINGAPORE - For nearly a week, Ms Zhou (not her real name) hid in a hotel in Somerset and isolated herself from family and friends, under the instructions of scammers impersonating China officials.

Believing that she was under investigation by the Chinese authorities for being part of a money laundering syndicate, the 22-year-old student wired a total of $500,000 to the crooks between Sept 2 and 7.

It was only after her boyfriend made a "missing persons" report with the Singapore police on Sept 6 that she was found the next day.

On Friday (Sept 20), she recounted the ordeal to reporters in an interview facilitated by the Singapore Police Force to warn others about similar scam tactics.

Ms Zhou had received a phone call on Sept 2 from a woman - who sounded local, she said - claiming to be from the courier company DHL, to notify her that a parcel sent to China in her name had been seized by the authorities there as it contained fake passports and credit cards.

The woman then transferred the call to the "Singapore 999 police hotline", which then transferred Ms Zhou to a call with the "Chinese police".

Pretending to be police officers from Shanghai, the swindlers told Ms Zhou they were investigating her for transnational crimes including money laundering and selling stolen bank accounts.

On video calls, they showed her their "police badge", though without ever showing their faces, and sent her "official documents" that had been altered to show her name. "It all looked so real, so I believed them," she said.

"To prove my innocence, they said I had to provide my bank details and show that I wasn't in any financial need to have to commit such crimes."

Under their instructions, Ms Zhou checked into a hotel on Sept 2 without informing anyone, and lied to her boyfriend that she was staying at a friend's place.

She was also warned by the scammers not to tell anyone about what was happening with the highly classified investigations, or she would wind up in jail.

For the next four to five days, Ms Zhou locked herself in the hotel room, but maintained contact with her boyfriend via text messaging.

During the period, she allowed the con artists to monitor her every move through video calls that went on from day to night, even when she was sleeping.

When she lacked money to wire funds to them, they told her to lie to her parents, who run a family business in China, to get more money. She followed their instructions.

It was only four days later, on Sept 6, when Ms Zhou went out of contact that her boyfriend sensed something was wrong and notified the Singapore police.

When police found her the next day, it took some convincing before she realised she had been scammed, said Ms Zhou.

Looking back on the incident, she said: "When they first called me about the parcel, I should have just put down the phone or gone to the nearest police station to verify their claims."

Superintendent Chew Jingwei, who heads the syndicated fraud branch at the Commercial Affairs Department, told reporters on Friday that the public can prevent themselves from becoming victims by being wary when they receive unsolicited calls.

He noted that in the month before Ms Zhou's case, another Chinese national had also fallen prey to a similar scam.

The 20-year-old student had faked his own kidnapping under the instructions of the scammer, said Supt Chew. Police later found him unharmed in a hotel in Chinatown on Aug 31.

"Substantial police resources were deployed in these two cases," he added.

China official impersonation scams are one of the top 10 scam types in Singapore. In the first six months of this year, there were 122 cases reported, with a total of $7.1 million cheated. The largest sum cheated in a single case was $1.36 million.

How to avoid being a victim of China officials impersonation scams

  • Ignore calls by these "Chinese officials" and the callers' instructions. No government agency will demand payment through an undocumented medium like a telephone call or other social messaging platforms like WeChat or Facebook. No agency will also ask you for personal banking information such as your Internet banking passwords.
  • For foreign residents receiving calls from people claiming to be police officers or government officials from your home country, call your embassy or high commission to verify the claims of the caller.
  • Refrain from giving out personal information and bank details, whether on a website or to callers over the phone. Personal information and bank details - such as Internet bank account usernames and passwords, as well as one-time password codes from tokens - are useful to criminals. Do not make any funds transfer at the behest of such callers.
  • Call a trusted friend or talk to a relative before you act. Do not be pressured by the caller to act impulsively.
  • To seek scam-related advice, call the anti-scam helpline on 1800-722-6688.

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