Scamming the Scammers — Rise of the Scam Syndicates
Top image: rms1264

It was mid-May 2021—a balmy afternoon. Much of the world was in some form of Covid-19-induced lockdown. In Sydney, it was no different. Australian native Vanessa* was getting restless with the physical isolation. Cooped up at home 24/7, her mind was racing—she had always wanted to learn Mandarin, maybe now was the right time? 

Like most millennials, the 29-year-old administrator found an app called Tandem that connects and matches strangers worldwide to chat with fellow users and practice whatever languages they want to learn. It can feel a little Tinder-ish even though the app is not meant for dating purposes. Nevertheless, this was how boy meets girl. 

He had me at ‘Hello’

“Hi, are you learning Mandarin?” ‘Jacky’ starts off the conversation. “Yes, I’m!,” Vanessa replies moments later. Slow and cautious at first, eventually, the back-and-forth messages pick up momentum. 

Soon, the smiley faces and emojis appear: “Good morning 😊; Have you eaten?; What are you doing now?; How was work?; Good night 😊.”

Before long, they are sharing dreams—I want to travel, she tells him. The conversation feels natural, “a dream almost,” recalls Vanessa, so much so that within three weeks after their first chat, she thought “a pretty good friendship” had developed. 

Except friendship was not what ‘Jacky’ had in mind. 

Image: Vanessa

‘Raising the pig’

Things started to get intense fast. “We were messaging each other daily, morning till night,” Vanessa recounts. Back and forth, they sent each other photos of what they ate and what they were doing. 

Around this time, ‘Jacky’ began sending her screenshots of his investment portfolio. Vanessa did not think it odd. After all, he told her he worked as a fund manager in Hong Kong. 

So, when he convinced her to invest in cryptocurrency, “I didn’t think twice,” she tells me, with a wry laugh. 

Vanessa would later discover that she was one of the thousands of people targeted in an illicit fraud scheme known as ‘pig butchering or ‘sha zhu pan’ in Chinese. The term means to fatten a pig before slaughtering it. 

Working off scripts, a dollop of charm, and photos that have been edited and lifted from social media accounts, scammers create a persona for themselves and spend months cultivating a relationship with the victims before persuading them to buy into dodgy cryptocurrency schemes and other fraudulent investment products. 

Scams are flourishing

News reports say such scams started in China in 2016 but have since gone global, spreading beyond borders and language. 

There is no official data on the number of pig-butchering scams busted each year in Singapore. But figures from the Singapore Police Force (SPF) show that investment scams more than doubled in 2021–last year, there were 2,476 cases, up from 1,096 in 2020. 

It was a costly affair for the victims, who were cheated a staggering S$190.9 million in 2021–more than double the amount lost in 2020. In 2021, scam cases made up over 51.8% of all crimes reported in Singapore. 

Anthony Lim is not surprised. A cyber security and governance expert, Lim, thinks this recent resurgence “displays innovation on the part of the scammers, and this caught a lot of people off on the wrong footing.” 

Scams and scammers, he says, are constantly evolving. “Now, cryptocurrency is the latest craze. In the past, it was gold, commodities, forex, property and others.” Then and now, Lim says scammers play on a victim’s impatience, desperation, or greed. 

But “greed is the number one bait,” he stresses.

Image: Vanessa

Opening the Pandora scam box

‘Jacky’ obviously knew that which was why, with little persuasion, on 10 June, Vanessa made her first foray into cryptocurrency with USD$1,000. Within seconds, she made a profit of USD$200. The next day, Vanessa invested USD$3,000—the profits tripled. On day three, she upped the stakes, pumping in a whopping USD$5,000. She found herself making a tidy total of USD$2,800 in profits. 

“Even if you are not a greedy person—and I’m not—when you see the numbers go up each time you invest, it brings the greed out of you.” 

The pandemic has created a Pandora’s box of opportunities for scammers like ‘Jacky’ to leverage. Coupled with the economic downturn and reduced job security, pressure increases for people “to look for alternative forms of income and opportunities, thereby affecting decision-making processes,” explains principal clinical psychologist Dr Annabelle Chow of Annabelle Psychology. 

That’s when the appeal of a windfall or landing a new job is alluring. Little wonder then that job scams in Singapore jumped to 4,554 cases last year, up from a mere 132 cases in 2020. 

Loan scams also spiked by 15%—2,274 cases were reported in 2021 versus 1,978 cases in 2020. In both scams, fraudsters reached out to their victims mainly through various social media platforms, websites, and WhatsApp.

It’s probably also why the reliance on technology and smartphones can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Nowhere was this more apparent than during the pandemic, thanks to work-from-home arrangements. 

Between emails, texting, Zoom meetings, and online shopping, con artists knew these were the best places to catch victims. They had a field day.

Non-banking-related phishing scams in Singapore rose more than four-fold to 2,783 cases last year, from 644 cases in 2020. On the other hand, banking-related phishing scams increased by 66.9% to 2,237 cases in 2021, up from 1,340 cases in 2020. 

In most instances, scammers approached their victims through calls, emails, and SMSes, just like the recent OCBC phishing scam. It struck a chord with many Singaporeans, with media reports of victims having their life savings completely wiped away. 

Image: Singapore Police Force

The rise of the scam sweatshops

Minister of State for Home Affairs, Mr Desmond Tan, told parliament last month that many of the scam websites used in the OCBC fraud were hosted by overseas companies.

At least 90% of scams in Singapore originate from overseas, says the police, adding a layer of complexity to an already intricate web of duplicity. This is because such cases will depend on the level of cooperation rendered by overseas law enforcement agencies and their ability to track down scammers operating in their jurisdiction. 

A police spokesperson says SPF works with several counterparts, among them the Hong Kong Police Force and the Royal Malaysia Police. Such collaborations resulted in SPF busting 16 international scam syndicates last year.

Nabbing scam syndicates are tricky—they are resourceful. They also run sinister operations such as scam sweatshops that house thousands of people in Southeast Asia, according to Nikkei Asia.

The details are sketchy because there is little information about these, but Vanessa tells me many come from China. For some, it’s a choice. But for others, they are lured to countries like Myanmar and Cambodia with promises of lucrative jobs, only to have their passports taken away from them and work in horrible conditions. 

“Imagine a tightly-run call centre; that’s how it operates. They are working 16-hour days trying to scam—just to survive. If they don’t scam a certain amount, they are bullied or beaten,” Vanessa shares.

Vanessa knows how these scam sweatshops work since she’s a member of a volunteer-driven advocacy group known as the Global Anti-Scam Organisation (GASO) that monitors the illicit industry. GASO was launched last July by those who had fallen victim to ‘pig-butchering’ schemes. 

The group stockpiles and exposes the URLs of sham investment websites and apps scammers use. It has so far amassed at least 5,000 such URLs. 

Image: VectorMine

Taking on the scammers

Some GASO members, like 40-year-old Singaporean Rose,* also work to scam the scammers in what is known as ‘scam baiting’. Rose tells me it’s dangerous for her to reveal too much information about herself. Maintaining anonymity, it turns out, is necessary for scam-busting and scamming alike. 

A scam victim herself—her family remains unaware—Rose creates fake accounts on Tinder and various social media platforms to lure the fraudsters into providing her with the URLs. At her busiest, she chats up anywhere between seven and eight scammers a day while holding a full-time job. She knows their inner workings all too well. 

“These scammers are usually split up into groups of about four to six people. Each group has a supervisor and other bosses that you can describe as ‘upper management’”. 

They also have an IT department and another team looking after customer service. “So, when a scammer asks you to invest in a cryptocurrency platform, you’re in fact being directed to their customer service department,” Rose shares.

This eerie level of sophistication can perhaps explain why individuals like Vanessa and Rose were taken in so easily. 

According to GASO, 80 Singaporeans have so far approached the group after being duped. Their combined loss? A whopping S$14 million. 

Age was no barrier—many were between 29 and 31 years old, primarily female and educated. 

Vanessa tells me there’s a saying in GASO: “Everyone can get scammed. It’s just that they haven’t met a scammer with the right script.” 

Image: Reeta Rahman

Gut instinct

‘Jacky’ had the right script. What he did not count on was Vanessa having her wits about her. She cannot quite put her finger on it, but Vanessa says “something just did not feel right” about how quickly she managed to make money in just three days worth of cryptocurrency investments. 

That’s when she told ‘Jacky’ she wanted to stop investing. “I got nervous. If it was this easy to make money, why isn’t everyone on it?” 

She spoke to family and friends for advice and went on Reddit—an online platform with numerous discussion forums—and typed scams. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Make no mistake, Vanessa’s experience is extremely rare. Most scam victims are never this lucky. Unfortunately for us, scams and fraudsters are here to stay. The National Crime Prevention Council’s Anti-Scam Helpline handled more than 6,700 calls last year, while its ScamAlert website received over 914,000 visits in 2021. 

As the push for a smart nation continues, and with “5G at the door, the likelihood that there are more holes we forget to patch is higher. And the bad guys will have a field day,” Lim laments. It’s why if something sounds too good to be true, like a windfall, it probably is. 

Remember the adage we were taught as children: “Don’t talk to strangers.” Even as adults, there is some truth to that. The takeaway is that now, more than ever is the time for people to trust their gut—like Vanessa. 

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.

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