A woman in her late 50s went to a bank last Tuesday with a heavy heart and a fervent wish to save a young American doctor she had befriended on Facebook.
He told her he was stranded in a Malaysian airport for carrying more than US$2 million (S$2.8 million), and asked if she could remit another S$53,000, as the S$23,000 she had transferred to pay his fine was not enough. Little did she know that he was not who he claimed to be.
She was saved from parting with more money only when staff at OCBC Bank put a stop to the Internet love scam.
OCBC customer service manager Cindy Lim told the woman she needed further approval. She got her to read articles about similar scams, and then persuaded her to make a police report.
With Internet love scams on the rise and a spike in parcel scams recently, banks and remittance companies are trying to stay one step ahead of conmen by updating their staff on new ruses or keeping databases of scam accounts, for instance.
At OCBC, daily meetings are held. This is when managers share case studies.
Maybank does so at monthly meetings and POSB, whenever a staff member detects a scam. OCBC said its staff are trained to observe for signs that customers may be victims, too.
They may seem worried and the remittance amount may be unlike their usual transaction patterns.
These efforts come as Internet love scams rose to 442 from January to September, up from 244 in the same period last year.
Maybank said it stopped seven suspected cases last month alone, although there was no overall surge in numbers.
Other kinds of scams have also gone up. OCBC received 1,081 calls from July 1 to July 17 about phone scams involving callers pretending to be from the bank, compared to just 16 in April.
In recent months, parcel scams have spiked as well, said remittance companies. Zhongguo Remittance said it saw six to seven scam cases involving parcels a month from July to August, though numbers have since dropped.
Remittance firm Hanshan Money Express said it has seen more scams in the past three months. There can be as many as 15 cases a month.
This led it to adopt measures such as having a database to prompt staff when money is to be transferred to accounts blacklisted in previous scam cases.
Younger and better-educated people are falling victim to scams, too. Mr Jed Huang, chief executive of Zhongguo Remittance, said those aged below 40 make up around half of the scam victims it sees.
Ms Lim Jing Xian, manager of Hanshan Money Express, said: "It's quite hard for the staff to be able to detect every single scam, especially if victims are young people. Young people are very fluent and very confident. It's hard to tell if they are nervous."
Her front-line staff have been trained to ask more questions if they see suspicious cases. This includes pressing for details on how customers are related to the party they are remitting money to.
Perhaps the trickiest thing is telling customers that they have become victims. Said Ms Lim : "Even if you tell them it is fake, they will not believe you. So, we call the police."
Only when they have "woken up" do staff return them the money they intended to remit, she said.
It took a bank employee about seven hours to dissuade a woman in her 60s from remitting money to a "friend" who claimed to have been detained at Kuala Lumpur airport for smuggling gold last month.
Watch out for these scams in Singapore
Staff took 7 hours to dissuade victim
The man, supposedly a pilot in his 30s, had been in contact with the older woman for five years and called her "honey", said Ms Kristie Chiang, a customer service manager at OCBC Bank's Marine Parade branch.
"At the counter, she was impatient and wanted us to hurry up. The teller sensed something was wrong and alerted one of our officers, who asked the customer more questions," said Ms Chiang, who was then informed of the incident.
The woman believed her friend had been held up at Customs, and she had to remit RM5,000 (about S$1,650) to help him.
But the friend's name did not match that of the account number she was remitting money to, and the location did not correspond either.
"All she wanted was to save (him) from trouble. She was very afraid," recalled Ms Chiang, who then spoke to the scammer over the telephone. He had been calling the older woman even while she was at the bank.
He refused to reveal his identity. "He just kept crying and saying he was going to die," said Ms Chiang.
When she spoke to the "Customs officer" in Malaysia to ask for proof, the other party became agitated.
After hours of persuasion, she accompanied the woman to make a police report.
The woman returned an hour later to insist again on remitting the money, only to be stopped by Ms Chiang.
"Such things are common recently, so (our office) gives us a lot of information on these scams," said Ms Chiang.
This article was first published on Oct 15, 2016.
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