SINGAPORE - For several months, housewife Monica Garg could only watch helplessly as 405,000 euros (S$680,000) in her bank account lay stuck, promised to a scammer overseas.
And late last month, her worst fears were realised as the money was finally siphoned off.
That amount was just half of the amount Mrs Garg, a Singaporean PR from India, claims she and her husband lost in a scam.
The money, totalling 805,000 euros, is the couple's life savings. They moved to Singapore nine years ago and run a business here.
It began about a year ago when Mrs Garg was introduced to Burkina Faso national Mr T (not his real name) through a Chinese national of Pakistani origin. Burkina Faso is a country in West Africa.
Mrs Garg said she knew the Chinese national through her husband's restaurant business.
She said: "Mr T impressed us as he was staying at Marina Bay Sands and said that he had spent a lot of money to come to Singapore. He showed us business class tickets, which cost about $30,000."
Mr T told her that he was in the gold business, and asked if she wanted to invest some money with him.
He promised her 5 per cent returns on her investment every month.
To gain her trust, he passed her 9kg of gold bars and left Singapore, telling her to sell it.
Mrs Garg, who is a mother of 13-year-old twin sons and lives at City Square Residences in Little India, did as she was told and earned about $20,000 from the sale.
About three months later, Mr T contacted Mrs Garg on the phone and via e-mail and asked if she would like to invest more with him.
He asked for the investment to be in the form of a bank guarantee.
Mrs Garg first put up 400,000 euros, but Mr T later asked her to double the amount to 805,000 euros.
He claimed that the money was meant to guarantee his loans in Burkina Faso, and that the money was supposed to be used to buy more gold. But what Mrs Garg didn't know was that if he did not settle his loan, the bank could draw on her money.
The couple became concerned when they did not receive any returns on their investment after setting up the bank guarantee.
She said: "As the money was in our local bank account, I didn't think there would be any problem."
Mr T continued to assure her that he would send the money, and invited her husband to fly 30 hours to Burkina Faso, on a fully-paid trip in December last year to attend his wedding.
She said: "By then, we hadn't received any of the returns he promised and my husband tried asking for it when he was there (in Burkina Faso).
"Instead, he tried to show off how wealthy he was, taking my husband to gold mines and showing him around his office."
All this while, Mrs Garg only received excuses and pleas for them to "trust him that they will get the money back".
She was caught in a bind when she found that 400,000 euros had been withdrawn in February. When this happened, she contacted Mr T to ask for her money back.
Finally in June, she made a police report against him, and hired a lawyer in Singapore and in Burkina Faso to recover the money.
Police confirmed that a report has been lodged and that they are investigating the matter.
Mrs Garg told The New Paper: "I spent time helping my husband build up his business instead of spending time on my children. Now everything I earned is gone."
She said: "I tried contacting the bank to stop the transfer from happening, but it said I needed to first prove that the bank in Burkina Faso is fraudulent. "How can I possibly do that? By the time I did that, my money would have been long gone."
Since about two months ago, she has not been able to contact Mr T, who has changed his phone number.
Instead, her only communication with him is through the Chinese national, who refuses to give Mr T's whereabouts or contact numbers.
When The New Paper contacted the man in India, he was forthcoming about the deal between Mr T. He said: "I cannot say anything bad about Mr T because my family and I are completely dependent on him (for income).
"But I think that he should return Monica's money. I have tried very sincerely to ask him for the money, but he has always ignored my requests without any explanation.
When asked if he thought Mr T had cheated Mrs Garg of her money, he said: "Sometimes I think he will one day pay the money back, sometimes I think he is a cheat."
He claimed to have known Mr T for about 12 years, but that this was the first time he is involved in a business deal with him."
Even Mrs Garg's lawyer, Mr Mathew Kurian, said that it would be an uphill task to recover the money. He said; "From my experience dealing in this kind of case, it's not going to be easy."
Mr Kurian said Mrs Garg was a victim of fraud. "Mr T has made it seem like this is a commercial transaction, and can easily say that it's a business deal that went wrong."
Now, Mrs Garg is at a loss for what to do.
She said: "I don't know what to do now. Losing the money is like losing my children. It was my first time, and probably my last time, to ever invest my money."
She hopes that others would not follow her example and be lured by the promise of high returns.
"I want to tell them that whatever looks lucrative may not be so. The pain of losing is much more than the happiness of gaining," she said.
'Nearly zero' chance of getting money back
It would be almost impossible for Mrs Garg to recover her money, lawyers told The New Paper.
Litigation lawyer Louis Lim said her chances of getting her money back is "nearly zero".
Mr Lim said: "In order to serve notice on someone overseas, Mrs Garg will need to go to the High Court, which will be very expensive.
Even so, spending the money does not guarantee anything. For example, even if notice is served, it can be ignored.
Also, Burkina Faso has no treaty with Singapore that allows the repatriation of criminal suspects.
If Mrs Garg decides to sue Mr T, there is also the question of whether he has the money and whether he has any assets, since he doesn't have any in Singapore. The question: Is the person worth suing?
Mr Lim also gave some tips on how people can avoid such scams.
He said: "Before entering into such a deal, a lawyer and an accountant should be engaged. This way, a litigation search can be conducted in the person's country of origin to check if he has been convicted of any crime or sued before.
"A private investigator can also be hired to check on a person's background."
But Mr Lim added that it wasn't just a matter of conducting checks, but more of exercising caution before entering into such a deal.
He said: "Your gut instinct is important. We should invest wisely and not just because someone has gained our trust.
"In other words, we should separate our emotions from business, especially if the deal sounds too good to be true."
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