Housewife duped into transferring $17,000 for 'businessman'
With a seven-year-old daughter to look after, she was unable to work full-time.
So when Madam Siva (not her real name) saw an online advertisement in March seeking applicants to send out letters and parcels on behalf of a businessman in South Africa, it seemed perfect for her.
She could work from home and earn $1,500 every week.
Sounds too good to be true?
It was. The job offer was an elaborate scam to recruit money mules.
Money mules are intermediaries in an illegal money-laundering operation who receive ill-gotten gains from online scams in their bank accounts here and remit the money to the masterminds, who are usually based overseas.
While some knowingly do this for profit, others, like Madam Siva, are duped into becoming money mules.
Soon after she started working for the "businessman", she got a shock when the police froze her bank account and told her that she could be charged for money-laundering.
During the police investigations, which took about four months, she kept worrying that she would end up in jail.
Said the 30-year-old Singaporean: "I cried every day with my husband, wondering what would happen to my daughter who was going to start school soon."
After she applied for the job, the "businessman" who went by the name of James, asked her for her bank account and identity card details.
Madam Siva told The New Paper yesterday: "He was very convincing and told me that he was a Singaporean architect based overseas. "He told me that I would get payments from his customers here. All I had to do was to transfer the money to him.
Madam Siva never received the letters and parcels that she was supposed to send out. And she never received a cent of the promised salary.
But over the two-and-a-half weeks she worked for him, she received more than $17,000 in her account and transferred the money to a South African bank account, believed to belong to the scammer.
Fortunately for Madam Siva, she was cleared after investigations showed that she had been duped into being a mule.
"I wasn't charged because I didn't know I was part of a crime. But I was given a warning letter," she said.
He paid for a bike that did not exist
One such victim of the multiple payment online purchase (MPOP) scam was Justin (not his real name).
He had seen an advertisement offering a branded bicycle for $400. It seemed like a huge bargain compared to its usual $1,000 price tag in the shops.
Again, the offer was too good to be true. But Justin, 20, fell for it.
He said: "I was worried at first. It was the first time a seller had told me to pay by bank transfer."
To convince him, the seller sent Justin two NRIC pictures claiming that one was of himself and the other was of the delivery man. Feeling reassured, Justin transferred the payment to a Singaporean bank account which the seller claimed was his.
But the seller became uncontactable after that. And Justin never got delivery of the bicycle.
He did an Internet search of the person in the NRIC and found that it belonged to a full-time national serviceman (NSF). Through a friend, he managed to trace the NSF and confronted him.
"It turns out that this person had been scammed as well. He had been told by the scammer to transfer money to another account for a small commission," said Justin.
"He did not know where the money came from. He was a money mule."
Number of online scam cases up by more than 2,000 per cent
Eighteen Singaporean money-mule suspects were arrested in a two-day sting operation that ended yesterday morning.
The six men and 12 women, aged 16 to 47 years old, were believed to be involved in multiple payment online purchase (MPOP) scams.
The Ang Mo Kio Police Division, which led the operation, has arrested 36 money-mule suspects so far this year, compared to only one in the first half of last year.
The division's commander, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lian Ghim Hua, said the police had stepped up enforcement against online scammers by going after money mules, "crippling their operations".
He added: "We've been aware of this modus operandi as early as last year, but the number of cases picked up in the first half of this year."
There was a stunning 2,223 per cent increase from the 13 reported cases of MPOP scams in the first half of last year to 302 cases in the same period this year.
On Tuesday, The New Paper observed officers from the division's commercial crime squad carry out a three-hour operation. In one arrest, a male money-mule suspect in his 20s was ambushed at his home in Bedok North Road. He kept silent as he was handcuffed and led out of his flat by three plainclothes officers as his family members watched.
Said DAC Lian: "We see money mules as an area of concern in view of the significant increase in online scams, especially with more people doing e-commerce nowadays."
He added that the police will raise awareness among consumers so they won't fall prey to scams and also warn people from becoming money mules.
Those found guilty of cheating by acting as a money mule can be jailed up to 10 years and fined.
HOW TO AVOID BEING SCAMMED
Do business only with those you know and trust.
Find out where the company or seller is physically located.
Ask for more information when required. A legitimate business would gladly provide it.
Never give your bank account, credit card and personal details to anyone you don't know or have not checked out.
Check the track record of the seller and ask for a list of clients. Check with these clients on the services provided.
Source: Singapore Police Force
This article was first published on August 21, 2014.
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