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$300 to $800 per errand: More youngsters drawn to becoming loan shark runners via social media for fast cash

$300 to $800 per errand: More youngsters drawn to becoming loan shark runners via social media for fast cash
(From left to right) Inspector (INSP) Ong Tiam Huat, Assistant Superindent of Police (ASP) Michael Ho from Bedok Division and Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Alvin Li.
PHOTO: AsiaOne/Claudia Tan

Armed with a can of paint, a black marker and a bicycle lock, four teenagers vandalised a Tampines flat with paint on March 9, 2022. 

The group of four youths, aged between 17 and 18, also locked the HDB unit's front door and wrote graffiti on the wall. 

For harassing those residents over a debt owed, these youths earned a sum of $100, which was split among them. 

These youths — who were eventually nabbed two hours after the victim made a police report — are part of a growing cohort of teens opting to work as loan shark runners. 

Some are tempted by advertisements on social media, others recruited by friends, or via Telegram groups offering jobs for fast cash.

Some of them can be paid between $300 to $800 for one job, said Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Michael Ho, who is the officer-in-charge of the police's anti-unlicensed moneylending squad from Bedok Division. 

Their task usually includes splashing paint on debtors' units, locking their doors and writing threatening messages on walls. 

Just last year, The Straits Times reported that loan sharks were offering quick cash for runners willing to help them harass debtors. 

The advertisements, posted on Telegram, reportedly offered between $350 to $500 for splashing paint on debtors' doors. 

"[For the Tampines case,] one of the youths said that they got this job through a schoolmate, who was actually a middleman between the unlicensed money lender (UML) and the youths," said Ho. 

"The person we arrested also admitted that he knew of this through a Telegram group called SG Fast Cash, and he communicated with a person known as Lincoln." 

Ho said that the four youths in that Tampines case were later charged and sentenced to 21 months' probation. 

According to statistics from the police, there has been an increase in the number of youths aged between 14 and 19 arrested for engaging in unlicensed moneylending activities from 2023 to 2024. 

The proportion of youths arrested in January to May 2023 made up 3.1 per cent of those arrested for their involvement in unlicensed moneylending activities, but has increased to 8.6 per cent in the same period this year. 

When it comes to youths arrested for such offences, Ho said that the police will usually contact their parents and refer them to the relevant agencies to assist them. 

The police also regularly conduct talks in schools across Singapore, informing them about the laws and penalties for helping UMLs. 

Social media helps unlicensed moneylenders hide behind wall of anonymity

Besides using social media for recruiting runners, UMLs are also using online platforms such as TikTok to promote their services and even harass debtors.

"These perpetrators [can use online platforms] to hide behind the wall of anonymity, I think it's due to the ease in setting up online accounts," said Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Alvin Li. 

For example, in February this year, a woman was charged in court for helping UMLs promote their business on TikTok. 

She reportedly helped two UMLs by posting 20 loan advertisements on the video-sharing platform. 

Li, who is also the officer-in-charge of the CID's Unlicensed Moneylending Strike Force (UMSF), told AsiaOne how syndicates harass victims using food delivery apps

This is where they order copious amounts of food to the victims' home, and select cash on delivery as the payment method. 

"We are monitoring their tactics. We are also working with various stakeholders to curtail the problem," said Li. 

This includes working with telcos, social media companies, as well as engaging food delivery companies to understand the measures put in place to prevent UMLs from abusing their platforms. 

1,343 investigated for UML-related activities in 2023

In 2023, the police carried out 12 enforcement operations which led to the investigation of 1,343 individuals for engaging in UML-related activities. 

In 2022, there were more than 2,800 harassment cases linked to unlicensed moneylending, reported The Straits Times last year. This was down from more than 4,600 in 2018.

The number of arrests has also fallen – from more than 270 in 2018 to about 200 in 2022.

First-time offenders found guilty of carrying out or assisting in a business of unlicensed moneylending can face caning, fines of up to $300,000 and imprisonment of up to four years. 

Those caught acting on behalf of an unlicensed moneylender, committing or attempting to commit any acts of harassment could be jailed for up to five years, fined up to $50,000, and may also be caned.

Anyone found guilty of instigating a youth to commit an offence assisting in the unlicensed moneylending business or carrying out harassment acts on behalf of the loan sharks can be jailed for up to nine years, fined between $6,000 and $300,000, and receive up to 12 strokes of the cane. 

READ ALSO: I didn't think I was harming anyone, says teen caught working as money mule in Singapore

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