Woman loses $1.1m over four months in elaborate love scam

In the first half of  2017, 349 love scams were reported, up from 277 in the same period in 2016.
In the first half of 2017, 349 love scams were reported, up from 277 in the same period in 2016. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - She travelled to Malaysia about 10 times in four months with cash in tow, in the hope of freeing a "close friend" she believed to have been detained there on money laundering suspicions.

Grace (not her real name) spent $1.1 million on "certificates", supposedly issued by the United Nations to prove the innocence of her friend - a 52-year-old Canadian businessman called Lee.

But the amount she spent was not enough to prevent him from being "deported".

The businesswoman, 45, realised she would not get her money back when the online banking website that Lee referred her to as proof of his finances could no longer be accessed after the scam was completed - it was a fake webpage.

Grace reported the incident to the police in June, about nine months after first meeting Lee.

Her case is among 349 love scams reported in the first half of this year. This is up from 277 in the same period last year, according to mid-year crime statistics from the police.

Speaking to reporters over the phone, Grace - a divorcee who has children - said that she got to know Lee around September last year, through another friend.

They grew close over Facebook and eventually met multiple times over meals and drinks.

 

Lee claimed he had plans to migrate to Singapore and wanted to find out how she, a Singapore permanent resident, came to live here for more than a decade.

It was close to half a year later that money came into the picture.

One night early this year, Lee called, saying that he needed help at a Malaysian airport. He said he had been found carrying close to US$2 million (S$2.7 million) in cash - which he said he had planned to use to buy a home in Singapore.

"He handed over the phone to a Customs officer... Customs said they had to hold him because he was carrying so much money, and he was not supposed to," said Grace. "(Lee) asked for help from Canada, and his friend got someone from the UN to help him."

She was later introduced to a "UN worker", who told her the Malaysian Customs wanted US$250,000 in exchange for Lee's release.

Grace was reluctant to provide the money, but the man asked her to try and raise funds, and to make a trip to a Kuala Lumpur airport.

When she flew there in February, the supposed UN worker took her to a building with a conference room and showed her the luggage Lee was supposedly caught with. It was filled with wads of US$100 bills, wrapped in plastic.

"It was real money," said Grace, who said she was allowed to examine a few of the notes. "From there, I believed that this case was a serious one. From there, I felt that he really needed my help."

She was later told that Lee needed two certificates issued by the UN to prove he was not money laundering, and to declare that he was carrying real money.

To pay for the certificates, Lee, who contacted Grace daily with the help of the supposed UN worker, gave her what he claimed were his Canadian bank details, and told her to log in to his account to help him make payments using his funds.

She could not withdraw the money from his account, although she could transfer funds to a shipping company when he "had to pay" the company for separate reasons.

Deciding to help, she travelled to Johor Baru and Kuala Lumpur every few weeks with cash. The money was handed over to the "UN worker" for the certificates that would purportedly prove Lee's innocence.

This went on until around May, with the supposed UN worker calling her "day and night" at one point. One day, she was told Lee was due to be deported to Canada unless she coughed up another US $150,000.

"I said I have no more money... I cannot help any more," said Grace.

After Lee was "deported", she realised the online banking site she had been given was a duplicate of a real bank in Canada, and that the domain name had been purchased only in January.

"My family didn't know about this. They knew only after I lodged a police report," she said. She did not try contacting Lee or his accomplice after the incident.

Besides such love scams, there were more e-mail impersonation scams reported in the first half of this year as well.

In one case in March, staff of a shipping company received a fake e-mail from an account similar to that of its Croatian managing firm. The e-mail asked for US$1.4 million to be diverted to a bank in a different country.

They made a police report.

It was not the first time the firm encountered such an impersonation attempt, its managing director, who declined to be named, told The Straits Times over the phone.

In 2015, staff transferred $280,000 after being misled over e-mail as well, and it was only more than a year later that the company recovered the money.

"The scammers act in exactly the same way, with the same wording and same greeting, as the real person they are impersonating," said the managing director, adding that his company has put in place policies and measures to reduce the risk of being cheated.