Chinese love scams: Preying on Singapore’s most vulnerable people

More and more Singaporean men are being duped by online scammers. The scammers play on the emotions of lonely, vulnerable people.

By Phoebe, edited by Oliver Ward

More Singaporean men than ever before are being tricked into paying for non-existent sexual services. Scammers use a messaging app such as WeChat to contact the victim, then promise sexual services for a price. Once they have obtained the man’s address, they ask the man to pay in advance. The cyber gangs commonly request the targets to pay using Alipay, iTunes gift cards or other online payment modes.

The number of cases is rising

Victims in Singapore were cheated out of approximately $1.6 million in 627 cases of credit-for-sex scams in the first half of 2015. Internet love scams are on the rise. These types of scams are particularly insidious and malicious as they play on the victim’s emotions and implore them to fall in love with the scammer.
Another kind of love scam is the nude video extortion scam. Attractive young women will send messages to men and win their trust. They then entice them into performing sexual acts on Skype. A video is then recorded and will be sent to the man, blackmailing him for a sum of money.
Commercial crimes like these have increased by 1,387 cases in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2014.

A Singaporean man recounted how he was scammed by a woman who spent months interacting with him and gaining his trust. As in many cases, she asked for an iTunes gift card and a photo of an identity card before they meet. Eventually, they did not meet and he was blackmailed with his identity card photo.

Why the increase in love scams in Singapore?

Singapore is one of the most connected countries in Asia, with a high Internet penetration rate of 73% and a very large digital footprint for a country its size. According to a 2014 Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore report, 88% of households have access to the Internet.
One scammer said that Singaporeans are easier, more “gullible” targets for scammers. The main language used in Singapore is English, which means a lack of a language barrier for international cybercriminals.

Shifting social structures have created an increasingly lonely aging population

The number of people aged 65 and above living alone has risen sharply over the last 15 years to 42,100 last year, up from 14,500 in 2000. Sociologists believe the sudden rise in cases of online scams is due to shifting family structures. A low birth rate, rising divorce rate and estranged familial relations have left a generation of lonely older men searching for companionship online.

Mr Chan tried looking for a partner after his divorce in 1992, but he has not found one after many years. He said he wanted a partner to build a family with. “I want someone to build a home with. Now I work. Go home and look at the four walls.” He added, “Life has little meaning without someone to share it with.” Men like Mr Chan are being driven into the hands of online scammers through their own loneliness and search for love.

The feeling of shame among victims makes policing problematic

It is difficult for the police to identify the fraudsters due to the lack of victims coming forward to report the crimes. There is a strong stigma and sense of shame attached to falling for such a scheme. In one case, a victim reported the scam to the police but was then advised by the fraudster to withdraw the complaint.

Since June 2016, operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) in the police have been strategically positioned outside convenience stores to give advice to distressed victims. They are often easy to spot as they usually look uneasy and will purchase a large number of iTunes gift cards.

One NSman, Samuel Lee, said, “Victims are embarrassed to reveal, to come forward, to lodge any kind of report for fear of implications on their own families or employers.”

International collaboration and improved awareness are the keys to policing

International cooperation with Singapore’s foreign counterparts is essential in catching the overseas scammers.

Earlier this year, Singapore police collaborated with Malaysian police in a cross-border operation. It was successful, with twenty-seven suspects arrested in various Malaysian states. More joint operations are necessary to target these international love scams organisations.

Raising awareness among the older population is also essential to prevent more people from falling prey to such scams. Singapore Police Force and Universal McCann collaborated with Clear Channel to reenact a scene from online love scams cases and play it at a busy, city center bus shelter in an attempt to public awareness of the dangers of online scams.

The current challenge is allowing information to spread rapidly, across all channels to reach more people, to prevent the next victim from falling prey. The best way to immunise the community is to remove the stigma and make preventing scams a common topic of discussion.

The police have expanded their outreach efforts to all possible online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other popular websites. They have also set up a website showing the different types of online scams. A better-informed public will be more prepared, should they become targets of online syndicates.

As Singapore progresses towards its Smart Nation goal, individuals will face greater exposure to cyber-attacks. As technology plays an increasingly central role in everyday life, we need to keep our citizens safe online. Cross-border policing needs to be embraced in the fight and the victims of such scams need to be destigmatized. The way scammers play on the emotions of some of the Singapore’s most vulnerable citizens makes these types of crimes particularly destructive. Without strong support networks for victims and cutting-edge policing techniques, Singapore’s Smart Nation transition could turn the country into an online scammers paradise.