Tech equipment reseller narrowly avoids losing more than $100k in business e-mail scam

Between January and June, there were 209 cases of BEC scams reported, with $67.7 million lost, the police said. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A tech equipment reseller company came close to losing more than $100,000 worth of laptops to a scam.

The reseller is now trying to find legitimate buyers for the equipment.

The firm thought that it was receiving an order from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) when it got an e-mail from a Mr Daniel Chong on July 18.

Mr Chong, who claimed to be from NTU's procurement division, ordered 50 Dell laptops, asking the company to deliver them first to Penanshin Air Express, a freight forwarder.

Mr N.P. (not his real name), 53, the tech reseller's co-founder, told The Straits Times: "When we received the e-mail, we did not think there was anything wrong.

"Previously, when NTU launched tenders requesting laptops, we had always participated. So we thought that we were already in their list of prospective vendors and that the e-mail was legitimate."

It was only when Mr Bernard Chan, 44, director of Penanshin Air Express, informed him that the purchase order was fake that Mr N.P. realised he had fallen victim to a business e-mail compromise (BEC) scam.

BEC involves the sending of e-mails supposedly from the victims' colleagues, business partners or suppliers.

Unknown to the victims, these e-mails are sent by scammers, who have hacked into the e-mail accounts of these business contacts or who are sending them from spoofed e-mail addresses.

Between January and June, there were 209 cases of BEC scams reported, with $67.7 million lost, the police said.

This is more than thrice the $22.3 million lost to such scams from January to June last year, when 164 cases were reported.

Using another alias when he contacted Mr Chan, the scammer had posed as an employee of GP Industries, a Singapore-based battery manufacturer.

But when the scammer informed Mr Chan that he would arrange for a courier to pick up and ship the laptops to Britain, the Penanshin Air Express director realised it was a scam.

Mr Chan said: "If I am serving only as a collection point, this means that my company, which helps business owners ship their goods overseas, will not be paid."

After Mr Chan called Mr N.P, the duo realised that there were other discrepancies, such as how despite the scammer's claim of being from NTU, his e-mail address did not use the university's domain name.

Mr N.P. said: "We should have checked the location before shipping out the laptops. It does not make sense for a university to ask us to send laptops it is ordering to the United Kingdom, or even to another location in Singapore.

"During Covid-19, we were not doing so well. When we received a big order, we wanted to cash in."

The police said that investigations are ongoing.

Ms Linda Teo, country manager of recruitment agency ManpowerGroup Singapore, said that pandemic restrictions may have prevented employees leaving their companies from handing over properly to remaining staff.

She said: "Companies and suppliers that do not keep in regular contact may not be aware of these staff changes, potentially creating gaps in their processes that scammers may take advantage of."

Ms Evelyn Chow, managing director of human resources consultancy DecodeHR, said that due to the pandemic, many employees work from home.

"As this has become a norm, accounting staff are likely to be allowed to process payment to external vendors remotely," she noted.

Mr N.P. plans to put in place a new system in his company that will require multiple people to approve every order, instead of just those in the sales department.

He said: "At least the laptops did not leave the country, but we must be more careful now. We will spend the next few months training our staff and setting rules such as requiring a face-to-face meeting before orders are delivered."

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