A surge in online commercial offences - particularly scams offering sex for credit - has pushed up Singapore's crime rate.
Police statistics for last year, released yesterday, showed a 4 per cent rise in overall crime with 33,608 cases, although the rate remained low.
Almost all crime classes - including violent or serious property offences, housebreaking, theft and unlicensed moneylending harassment - showed a decrease.
But commercial crimes went up by about 47 per cent from 2014, with the biggest jump for cheating involving e-commerce, credit-for- sex and Internet love scams.
In 2014, there were just 66 credit- for-sex scams. Last year, there were 1,203 cases. Victims were cheated out of $2.9 million, with one losing about $74,000 - the largest amount in a single case.
Women approach men on social media asking them to buy gift cards and credits for goods online, in return for sexual services that they do not get. The victims were aged between 14 and 69.
Women were the main target of Internet love scams, cases of which rose from 198 in 2014 to 383. Victims handed over about $12 million, with around $528,000 being lost in the biggest case.
In most cases, offenders befriend their victims on social media and charm their way into their lives, then cheat them of their money. Those targeted were aged 21 to 74, and the scams were mainly carried out by foreign syndicates.
Meanwhile, e-commerce cheating cases soared by about 30 per cent last year.
Mr David Chew, director of the police's Commercial Affairs Department, said the force works closely with foreign law enforcement agencies and Interpol to crack down on foreign syndicates. He said: "Police will also investigate and prosecute local residents who are found to be perpetrating or assisting foreign syndicates in their criminal activities."
He noted that Singapore is a target due to its "wonderful infrastructure for the Internet", and urged the public to take care online.
"The reality is that we do not know who you are transacting with on the other end of the Internet," he said. "You might as well be transacting with a guy in Novena, or all the way in Nigeria, for all you know.
"People are lulled into a sense of complacency because we are safe on our streets, but they don't realise that the criminals use this sense of safety to scam us."
In December, 43 members of a syndicate were arrested in China after tricking Singaporean men into paying for sexual services that they never received. Mr Chew noted that in the following month, there was a 68 per cent dip in such scams.
"Sixty-eight per cent is quite substantial but not a complete success," he said. " There is a great deal of difficulty in intervening at every stage of the transaction. To stop the crime... it will take a bit of time, education and enforcement."
Police have warned the public of scams through roadshows, TV advertisements and a website. This has had some success, with people stopping their loved ones from sending money to suspicious operators.
Experts say victims of online love or sex scams can be lonely, or teens exploring sexual matters.
Mr Chong Ee Jay, manager of Touch Cyber Wellness, a voluntary welfare group that teaches Internet safety, said: "People think conversing online should be safe, but it's very easy for the perpetrators to hide their true intentions behind technology."
Psychologist Daniel Koh noted: "It works on instant gratification, so people are more impulsive to pay or carry on... It is also more targeted - people who seek certain websites want certain things."
Consultant psychiatrist Adrian Wang believes there could be victims who have not come forward.
"Victims of such scams are emotionally vulnerable and, to some extent, also naive and not Internet savvy. After being scammed, they are probably too embarrassed to report the crime.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the actual numbers are higher."
Internet love scam
A 51-year-old retiree thought she had made her first overseas friend when a man sent her a friend request on Facebook.
He claimed he was born in the United States but living in Australia, and they chatted for two months on social media.
When her birthday came along, he told her that he had mailed her a present - a branded bag.
"I didn't suspect anything at first," said the mother of two, who declined to be named. "It was only after I started giving money that I did. He told me it (the bag) was at the Customs and I had to give money to an agent to get it."
This is a common tactic used by scammers who target victims searching for love or friendship online. Some claim to be sending parcels containing valuable items such as branded watches or bags.
The victim soon felt something was amiss, suspecting the "agent" she called on a Singapore number was not actually in the country.
"The dial tone sounded like I was calling someone in Malaysia," she told The Straits Times.
She lost around $8,000 in total in about a month and finally made a police report in August last year. "I don't know how he found me. I felt that he was a friend and we just chatted online. I gave him the money but until now, I have not seen any bag."
A 30-year-old engineer thought he was getting a good deal on a Samsung mobile phone when he made an offer on online classifieds site Gumtree last October.
The phone cost "around $600" and he contacted its seller on the same day to buy it.
He was told to transfer the money to a bank account, which he did promptly.
But the phone never arrived.
Sensing that something was amiss, the man, who declined to be named, contacted the seller again.
This time, he was told, the terms and conditions had changed - he had to buy at least two phones to get it at the price stated.
This was when he asked for a refund, which was not given.
A few days later, the man reported the incident to the police.
He was one of over 2,100 people who fell victim to scams involving e-commerce last year.
Such cases rose by around 30 per cent from 2014 with victims cheated out of a total of about $1.76 million.
Victims are often told to make advance payment on an item that is attractively priced.
Sometimes, they are asked to make further payments for customs duties, delivery charges and taxes before they receive their purchases - which never arrive.
Credit for sex
He chanced upon her profile on Facebook and they started talking on instant messaging app WeChat.
Not long after, she offered him sex for $100.
The 23-year-old kitchen assistant, who declined to be named, arranged to meet the woman last November.
Before their meeting, she told him to make an advance payment of 500 yuan (S$106) by buying Alipay credits, which he did on an AXS machine.
Without delivering what she had promised, she then requested another 3,000 yuan worth of Alipay credits.
He thought that he would then get to have sex with her, but a man called him, asking him to pay a "refundable" sum of 5,000 yuan to ensure that the customer was not with the police.
He obliged but never got to meet the woman.
When a second man claiming to be the woman's boss called and asked for $1,000, he finally decided to break off communications and file a police report.
He has not heard from the woman since.
The man is one of more than 1,200 people who fell victim to credit-for-sex scams last year.
Most of the victims were aged between 20 and 39.
Advice from police on avoiding scams
Exercise caution when you come across unrealistic bargains.
Always check the buyer's or seller's track record, and buy only from reputable sellers.
Be wary of strangers who befriend you online. They may not be who they claim to be.
Be wary of offers for escort, massage and sexual services on social media. Think twice before making payment using online credits.
Do not send money to or buy anything from anyone you have never met.
This article was first published on Feb 13, 2016.
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