Internet scam foiled by vigilant OCBC bank staff

Ms June Seah (left) and Ms Yao Liang Bing (right) receiving the awards presented by Mr David Chew (centre) for successfully preventing an Internet love scam.
Ms June Seah (left) and Ms Yao Liang Bing (right) receiving the awards presented by Mr David Chew (centre) for successfully preventing an Internet love scam.ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

SINGAPORE - It was an ordinary work day for OCBC bank teller Yao Liang Bing until a 43-year-old woman walked into the Serangoon Garden branch on Monday morning (March 12).

The woman, known only as Madam Ng, had asked to remit $2,500 to another OCBC bank account as a customs clearance fee for a $20,000 parcel stuck at Malaysian customs.

A red flag for Ms Yao was that a government agency would request for funds to be transferred to a personal bank account.

"Usually government transactions are not related to a personal account. There is an official channel to do it," she said. “The customer had her suspicions too. She was just not convinced, not sure, that this was a scam.”

When probed, Madam Ng said she was instructed to do so by someone named Mr Owen Park, whom she said is a Britain-based Korean in his late 30s.

She had befriended him on Facebook about a week ago and he often sent her long messages, said Madam Ng, a business owner who is married with four children.

She was told that the parcel - a “gift” from Mr Park after he closed a big business deal - included a MacBook and Playstation 4 for her kids. 
Ms Yao, 26, then alerted customer service manager June Seah, 38, who also believed it to be a scam "on instinct". Both advised Madam Ng to lodge a police report, which she did.

Their quick wit foiled what was later discovered to be an Internet love scam.

An Internet love scammer befriends a person online and gains the person's trust before asking for money. Once the money is transferred, the scammer disappears.

For their vigilance, both Ms Yao and Ms Seah were presented with certificates of appreciation at the Police Cantonment Complex on Wednesday.

"As the first point of contact with the victim, Ms Yao and Ms Seah have successfully saved her from not just losing the initial $2,500, but future financial loss and distress if the scam had continued," said director of the Singapore Police Force's (SPF) Commercial Affairs Department David Chew.

This case comes amid a burgeoning number of Internet love scams. Last year saw the number spike 29.9 per cent to 825 reported cases, up from 635 cases in 2016. The total amount lost also rose to $37 million in 2017, from $24 million in 2016.

In a telephone interview with The Straits Times, Madam Ng said she had assumed Mr Park to be a friend of her husband.

"It's very common for his friends to add me (on Facebook). It's not like it's once in a blue moon."

Her husband only found out after the police report was made.

Madam Ng said she had received phone calls on Monday from two people claiming to be a courier agent and customs officer. Both kept egging her on to complete the money transfer that day.

She has since blocked Mr Park on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Said Ms Seah: "Scammers will make you feel anxious to do the transfer. They won't give you the opportunity to talk to anybody… Talk to a friend or bank staff."

The SPF has been cracking down on internet scams and is working closely with Malaysian police to tackle syndicates based there. 

Between February last year and January this year, three joint operations led to the arrest of 52 people in Singapore and Malaysia for their involvement in at least 150 Internet love scam cases. 

On home ground, the SPF has tapped social media to disseminate crime advisories. An advisory on their Facebook page last month read: “Close to $37 million was lost to Internet Love Scams in 2017. That’s worth 1.85 million bottles of love letters.”