Police on the prowl for unlicensed moneylending and vice websites

The police are making a request for a service that will trawl the Internet for vice-related and unlicensed money-lending related websites.

SINGAPORE - The police are actively trawling the Internet for websites offering vice or unlicensed moneylending services here in a bid to arrest the growing problem of loan sharks and online vice.

Tender documents seen by The Straits Times show that the Singapore Police Force (SPF) had made a request for a service that would "conduct proactive trawling of the Internet for vice-related and unlicensed moneylending related websites" and rank them according to their traffic volume.

The service should also be able to monitor the monthly access to such sites via mobile or non-mobile channels and track the number of vice workers advertised on each website.

The tender was awarded to StarHub on July 29, with the service to be delivered last month.

In response to queries from ST, the police said the trial initiative is to "see how technology can be better leveraged to improve SPF's capabilities in detecting such websites".

"Once detected, SPF will continue to work with the relevant authorities to take appropriate actions against these websites," it said.

The new service comes as online vice and loan-sharking activities have spiked in recent years. Unlicensed moneylending cases hit a five-year high last year, increasing by some 33 per cent from the year before to 751.

In 2018, 55 per cent of women arrested for vice were involved with an online syndicate, up from 16 per cent in 2015.

The use of such a proactive "trawling service" is not new, said experts ST spoke to.

Mr Ash Ang, director of IT consultancy firm Imagenz, said other companies that use such services, which in the industry is referred to as "Web crawling", include firms that want to track their competitor's prices on e-commerce stores.

Law enforcement agencies in other countries also employ similar technology. In Malaysia, a police unit monitors the traffic at pornographic websites, especially those that offer child porn, and can locate in real time the users who are surfing them.

However, users here need not be afraid that they will be punished for accessing unlicensed moneylending or vice websites, said experts.

Mr K. K. Lim, head of cyber security, privacy and data protection at law firm Harry Elias Partnership, said visiting such websites is not illegal, as the websites are open to the public.

But he added that there are sectoral rules governing the operation of such websites in Singapore by pointing out that the Moneylenders Act regulates moneylending activities in approved places of business.

The Women's Charter was also amended last year to extend the authorities' powers to ensnare syndicates operating online vice sites from overseas.

Mr Lim further noted that shutting down any site outside of Singapore can be a "long and tedious task".

"There are many laws in other countries that do not allow you to shut down sites for a variety of reasons, including exercising their constitutionally protected rights," he said, adding that the hosts may even mount a legal challenge against such orders.

"Shutting it down may not be so simple," said Mr Lim.

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