Victims fall prey to fake news sites promoting investments

Scammers using articles and ads carrying false endorsements to fool the public

Between September and November 2018, police received several reports of scams originating from misleading online articles that promoted investments in bitcoin. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

They can look like the real thing, down to the same mastheads and even fonts used by newspapers such as The Straits Times, The New Paper, The Business Times and Lianhe Zaobao.

These fake articles have been circulating on social media, riding on the popularity of international stars and personalities in Singapore to fool the public into putting their money into various investment schemes.

Between September and November last year, police received several reports of such scams originating from misleading online articles that promoted investments in bitcoin. Victims lost about $78,000 in total.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was featured in a fake article recently. It showed him speaking at the World Bank - Singapore Infrastructure Summit, an event held last year, with the caption: "You can take a HUGE advantage of this program."

In a Facebook post last Saturday, Mr Heng warned the public to be wary of such posts, telling them not to respond or share personal information with the dubious sources. He wrote: "Came across yet another one of these scams - while the link reproduced a Straits Times (ST) article word for word, it carries a false headline, and the Facebook post is heavily misleading. It is obviously fake news."

Since May, fake ST sites have appeared online via advertisements on social media. Those who click on the advertisements are directed to the websites, almost always hosted overseas, which falsely feature well-known people advocating cryptocurrency investments, travel offers and overseas restaurants.

The advertisements, which often disappear after a few hours, promise the investments are "safe, secure and highly lucrative". Anyone who keys in his personal details will be contacted by a "representative" of the scheme.

Scammers have been relentless. In 2016 and 2017, billionaire Peter Lim filed several police reports over the unauthorised use of his name and image in investment endorsements and scams. His name resurfaced again in an advertisement earlier this year, falsely portraying him as endorsing a "new secret investment" in an advertisement written by "Straits Times".

Experts say these cheats will create anything to suggest a story or website is legitimate.

Lawyer Andy Yeo from Eldan Law said: "SPH needs to warn users there are such bogus sites that are passing off their labels." He added that there is too much faith that the user is "astute enough to realise that redirection in websites is usually fraudulent".

Singapore Press Holdings' Chinese newspaper division, CMG Newshub, said it had received "more than 15 reports from our readers" when the Lianhe Zaobao masthead was used in fake advertisements.

Victims who clicked on the advertisements lost $132 in total. One of the victims has made a police report.

Lawyer Bryan Tan, who specialises in technology law and data protection at Pinsent Masons MPillay, said few victims will make reports.

Mr Tan, one of the authors of the Data Protection Law in Singapore, said the "biggest problem is that most people won't do anything about it unless they are personally cheated or they have reputations to preserve".

The fake news and advertisement scam may be the latest in a series of scams which saw people in Singapore lose at least $99 million in 2017. Police said that between January and April this year, victims lost at least $4.8 million in total in a case where scammers masqueraded as China officials to cheat them.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2019, with the headline Victims fall prey to fake news sites promoting investments. Subscribe