SINGAPORE - Scammers posing as Chinese officials have hoodwinked 139 people into giving away at least $6.3 million in the first three months of the year.
According to the latest police figures, this represents a more than threefold increase from last year, where 46 victims lost some $4.3 million in the corresponding months.
The victims typically fall prey to fraudsters on the phone who accuse them of being involved in crimes like money-laundering. To prove their innocence, victims are told to provide their Internet banking details and one-time passwords (OTPs), or are told to wire money to these "officers" to assist the investigation.
This is one of several scams that have skyrocketed in popularity this year. The police have warned about the rise of tech support scams and of scams involving OTPs in the past month as more Singaporeans stay indoors and rely on the Internet and their phones for company.
Victims said scammers are often thorough and convincing in their methods.
A woman wishing to be known only as Ms Tan was the victim of a convoluted impersonation scam. Ms Tan had first received a call last month from a person claiming to be a "bank official" from China. She said the person told her she had overdue charges on a credit card registered under her name.
When she said she had no such card, the "bank official" transferred her call to "Interpol" officers, who told her an account opened in her name was involved in money-laundering.
They instructed her to assist their investigations by transferring $40,000 to their account, claiming that this will be returned to her.
"I didn't want them to haul me back to China because I still wanted to continue studying here and so I did as they said," said Ms Tan, a permanent resident studying in a local university.
But the scammers did not stop there and involved Ms Tan in another ruse involving another victim, identified by the police as a Mr Ho, 68.
At their behest, Mr Ho transferred $50,000 of his money to Ms Tan's account after United Overseas Bank (UOB) stopped his previous attempt to transfer the sum into the scammer's overseas account.
Mr Richard Soh, head of investigations at UOB's integrated fraud management department, said the bank had flagged the transaction as suspicious as it was not in line with Mr Ho's transaction history and profile.
After speaking to Mr Ho, the bank suspected he was victim of a scam and informed the police's Anti-Scam Centre.
"With scams on the rise, we don't want our customers to be victims," said Mr Soh.
However, police had a hard time convincing Mr Ho and Ms Tan that they were victims of a scam as they were deeply influenced by the impersonators.
Anti-Scam Centre senior investigation officer Sim Yi Cheng said the tricksters would tell them exactly what to do and say, even to the police.
The two had also relinquished control of their own bank accounts to the scammers by providing them with their Internet banking details and OTPs, he said.
"When you have no control of your account, anyone can do anything; you can receive proceeds from crimes, be it money-laundering or terrorism financing, you'll never know," said Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Sim.
Thankfully, the two eventually realised they had been scammed. Mr Ho's $50,000 was safely returned to him but the two victims still ended up losing more than $74,000 to the scammers.
Ms Tan added that the money lost is a hard lesson learnt.
"I've really opened my eyes to how complicated these scammers can be," she said.
And she added: "I will never trust any strangers who ask me to do things involving my money."