Teen falls prey to online scam; ends up with $1,363 bill

Miss Tan Xinyi, 19, was charged of $1,363 after responding to a Gumtree advertisement that promised to pay participants of a billing service trial $20.
PHOTO: The New Paper

She had wanted to earn a quick and easy $20.

Instead, she was left with a phone bill of $1,363 after falling prey to an online job advertisement scam.

On April 26, 19-year-old Cindy Tan responded to a Gumtree ad that promised to pay $20 to participants of an "online carrier billing purchase system" trial. Gumtree is a local online classifieds site.

To test the system, participants were supposed to give the security codes or one-time passwords sent to their mobile phones.

The scammer then bought online credits including those from iTunes and Qoo10.

The ad stated that "purchase is not an actual purchase therefore no payment is required".

After Miss Tan expressed her interest, the scammer, who went by the name Celine, contacted her through WhatsApp that morning.

Celine arranged for the "trial" to start at 10.30pm and told Miss Tan that she would have to complete it in 30 minutes.

Miss Tan, who is waiting to enter university in August, told The New Paper: "Celine kept assuring me that I'd not be charged. She also stressed that I 'had to speed up' because the 'trial closed at 11'.

"I made 12 transactions. It all happened so fast. The rush prevented me from thinking rationally."

Miss Tan said she trusted the ad as she had a positive experience with a similar job advertised on Gumtree previously - she had earned $150 for doing a two-week online survey.

Although her parents had told her about online scams, she said those did not involve online credits and it did not cross her mind that Celine could have been a scammer.

Miss Tan said: "Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as Celine claimed to be from a company called CFS Trial Holdings and said she could give me some 'verification' the next day.

"She also appeared to have an identity as her WhatsApp profile photo was of a young woman. I knew that her photo could have been fake but I chose to believe her as I wanted the $20."

But after the "trial" ended at 11pm, she sensed something was amiss.

An Internet search confirmed her suspicions: The company did not exist and the Celine's WhatsApp profile photo was of local blogger Maybeline Sim.

Ms Sim made a police report after TNP alerted her to the case.


An Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) search revealed that CFS Trial Holdings was not registered in Singapore.

As of press time, the ad was still on Gumtree and was re-posted four days ago by seller "Celine" from company "Fortumo Holdings".

An Acra search showed no record of Fortumo Holdings, only Fortumo Singapore.

TNP could not get through to the mobile number listed on the ad, which was the same number used to contact Miss Tan on WhatsApp.

When Miss Tan realised she had been scammed, she cried and told her parents. They were livid.

She said: "I was angry at myself for being gullible and naive. I couldn't sleep that night.

"My parents asked me why I was stupid enough to believe the scam. Their scolding made me feel worse, but I totally deserved it."

Miss Tan was also sorry to her friend, Miss Ng Jing Ting, who was scammed of $200 after participating in the "trial" upon Miss Tan's recommendation. (See report at right.)

To make matters worse, Miss Tan's family was in financial difficulty.

Her mother, who wanted to be known only as Madam Lim, was retrenched from her piping designer job in February.

Her father, 59, was retrenched from his factory technician job a month later.

Since then, Miss Tan's 22-year-old brother has applied for bursaries to get him through his final year in polytechnic.

Madam Lim, 57, said: "Cindy is a smart kid who did well in her A levels. She used the Internet often for homework or to find part-time jobs. I didn't think she would be cheated.

"I was angry at first, but seeing her cry made me think that I should just treat it as a lesson learnt."

The family, who live in a four-room flat in Bukit Batok, have tried to get the bill written off.

The day after the scam, Miss Tan made a police report.

Police confirmed the report and said investigations are ongoing.

Miss Tan also tried to ask Singtel for a waiver, but without success.

Desperate, Miss Tan's father went to their constituency's Meet-The-People Session last Monday.

A volunteer helped send a letter to Singtel, appealing for a deferment in payment until police investigations are over.

When contacted, Singtel said it was unable to comment as the case is under police investigation.

Pessimistic about getting a waiver, Miss Tan is juggling part-time jobs as a tutor and amusement ride operator to save up to pay off the bill.

She said: "My family is getting by on savings. The $1,363 could buy us a lot of meals.

"I cry myself to sleep when I think of how foolish I was."

'Scammer had decent WhatsApp profile photo'

They were so close they called themselves "partners in crime", said Miss Cindy Tan's friend Ng Jing Ting.

Ironically, the 19-year-olds have become victims of crime instead, scammed by the same person.

Miss Ng was billed an extra $200 for her mobile line after doing the same "trial" - on Miss Tan's recommendation.

Miss Ng had started the "trial" immediately after Miss Tan ended hers, but was told by Miss Tan shortly after to stop all contact with the scammer when she realised something was wrong.

Miss Ng, who is also waiting to enter university in August, said: "I trusted the scammer as Cindy had done the 'trial' and the scammer had a decent WhatsApp profile photo.

"When I found out from Cindy that it was a scam, I was quite sad and wished I had been more discerning."


Miss Ng said her parents were calm when told of the scam and asked her to treat it as a lesson.

She tried appealing to Singtel to waive the bill, but was told it was not possible as the online credits had already been purchased and redeemed by the scammer.

Her family decided not to file a police report as the amount was small compared to the $1,363 that Miss Tan was scammed of, said Miss Ng who is still close friends with Miss Tan.

"I don't blame her for this as it was still my fault for believing the scammer," said Miss Ng.

"I now know that we should work hard for money instead of trying to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way."

1 in 4 upper secondary students has been scammed

In a straw poll of 500 upper secondary students earlier this year, one in four said they had fallen prey to online scams.

And among them, about one in three was scammed of money. Other scams included online deals where the buyer or seller did not turn up.

The poll was conducted by Touch Cyber Wellness, a voluntary welfare group that teaches Internet safety.

Its manager, Mr Chong Ee Jay, told The New Paper yesterday that it is "pretty common" for youth to fall prey to online scams, since they often use the Internet.

He said: "Many scam victims know at the back of their mind that something is wrong, but still proceed because of the thrill and temptation of fast money."

Mr Chong added that while it is natural for parents to want to reprimand the victims, they should also provide practical support such as filing a police report or adapting measures to safeguard their safety online and offline.

"Scam victims can experience self-blame and in severe cases, depression," he said.

"If victims feel that their parents are not on their side, they might resort to solving the matter themselves by borrowing money from loan sharks, which makes things worse.

"Parents should practise empathy when dealing with such cases."

As scams today are often complex and even "ingenious", Mr Chong said cyber-wellness programmes in schools should keep up with the times and parents should also talk to their children about it.

Youth themselves have to be discerning about what they see online, he added.

Legitimate job advertisements, for example, often contain professional language, including proper grammar, and list a registered company.


Mr David Maciejak, head of security software firm Fortinet's FortiGuard Lion research and development team in Asia-Pacific, said that requests for password or credit card information should set off alarm bells.

When money is involved, it is always better to call the company to verify the advertisement.

He said: "Just as you should not give your house keys to a stranger, you should never share your password, bank account details or PINs with others."

Users who come across scam ads should also report them to the website they are posted on.

"Gumtree provides a 'report scams or fraud' link in its page footer. This means it's not the first time this has happened," said Mr Maciejak.

While scams have existed for ages, technology is used to a greater degree in recent times, he added.

For example, online credit systems, such as the one in Miss Cindy Tan's case, use security measures that are based on what only the user would know, such as password, bank card details or a PIN.

But even if the user is using an authentication token that generates a one-time password (OTP), malware can forward the OTP to an attacker via SMS.

To overcome this, some mobile apps take advantage of smartphone functions such as banking apps that require fingerprint verification, he said.