Loan sharks trick, shame debtors on social media

Illegal moneylenders buy ads online to look legitimate and post photos of borrowers to embarrass them into paying up

Loan sharks have been posting borrowers' details on social media with videos and pictures they had demanded as collateral.

In the video, he declares his name, NRIC number and home address. And then confesses he has borrowed money from loan sharks.

Rather than hang pig's heads on doors, loan sharks have devised a 21st-century method of harassing debtors - posting their details on social media with videos and pictures they had demanded as collateral.

Most businesses have an online presence, and illegal moneylenders have cottoned on to how they too can create an air of legitimacy that could reel in unsuspecting borrowers. Some tech-savvy loan sharks are masquerading as licensed moneylenders (LMLs) advertising their "services" online. This has led to an increasing number of people "mistakenly" borrowing money from unlicensed moneylenders (UMLs), according to voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) who help those in debt.

Advertisements may appear on platforms like Facebook and Google, and some UMLs even have websites that look genuine.

This is in addition to unsolicited messages and calls from loan sharks offering loans, said the president of the Moneylender's Association of Singapore, Mr Peter Tan. He said people are misled because they assume that an illegal operation would not be advertising so openly. When reached on the phone, some loan sharks even claim to be licensed if asked directly.

"This problem has been around for at least two years, but it's becoming more rampant as loan sharks get more brazen," said Mr Tan. "The irony is that licensed moneylenders cannot advertise on these platforms, but people don't know that."

Mr Tan said he had brought this up to the authorities.

When contacted, the police and Registry of Moneylenders said they were aware of the problem.

The law forbids licensed money lenders from promoting their business through online advertisements or unsolicited calls and messages. They are allowed only to list their businesses in directories, or publicise their services on their own websites, and in materials available at their premises.

Over the years, there have been more cases of loan sharks using names of registered moneylenders and creating authentic-looking websites, said Mr Steven Loh, 44, a counsellor from Blessed Grace Social Services.

He said some borrowers are tricked because they do not know of the regulations that bind LMLs, who can only make loans face to face at the place of business, and must give loans in cash or cheque.

"For loan sharks, all the transactions happen online, and you don't even meet the person," he said.

Counsellor and board member at The Silver Lining Community Services, Madam Lucy Wee, 52, said many loan sharks pretend to be legitimate moneylenders when contacting potential borrowers.

"In a moment of urgent financial need, many don't take the extra step to check if the company or person is licensed. By the time they realise it's a loan shark, it's too late," she said.

Another trend noticed by VWOs are loan sharks taking to social media to harass debtors.

In the past months, there have been websites, Facebook pages and even YouTube channels set up by purported loan sharks who post information, pictures and videos of those who default on their loans.

While the pages are usually taken down within weeks, its purpose is to embarrass borrowers and expose their debt to friends and family, said founder of Adullam Life Counselling, Mr Wong Kee Soon.

Mr Wong, 63, said these methods of "shaming" are becoming more common. "Loan sharks don't just splash paint or put a pig's head on your door any more - they post threats and vulgarities on your Facebook wall and your friends' walls."

Mr Loh said loan sharks also tell borrowers to take video or pictures of themselves with their NRICs or any form of identification. When they default on their payments, the pictures and videos go online.

Madam Wee said: "(Licensed) moneylenders are an alternative for those who need money urgently but cannot borrow from banks because of income issues. But besides making sure they're licensed, do your checks and calculations because if you're unable to pay them back, you're stuck in a vicious circle."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline Loan sharks trick, shame debtors on social media. Subscribe