Bank staff called 'black-hearted' by love scam victim for not letting her send money to her 'bao bao'

Christine Tan and Samuel Devaraj
The Straits Times
Nov 11, 2023

Insisting her husband who lived abroad needed money, a woman in her 70s tried to transfer more than $50,000 at UOB’s Tampines branch in September.

But when bank staff asked her for the couple’s proof of marriage, she claimed they had married overseas and her husband had kept the marriage certificate and wedding photos.

Fearing she could be a love scam victim, UOB encouraged her to make a police report. She initially cooperated but later tried to make a second transfer, prompting UOB to freeze her account.

Furious, she verbally abused the bank’s staff.

Other banks also said their employees have had rude encounters with customers, while trying to prevent them from losing their life savings to scammers.

Between January 2020 and June 2023, victims in Singapore lost almost $1.9 billion to scams.

UOB’s Tampines deputy branch manager, Mr Denethor Wong, said he suspected the woman had never met her “husband” and warned her it was a scam.

Reading their conversations, he saw that the scammer had showered her with sweet nothings only to borrow money from her.

“He said: ‘Hi, baby, have you done the transfer already? Is it okay?’ And he kept pressing her,” said Mr Wong.

The woman agreed not to transfer the money on that first visit and lodged a police report on the bank’s advice.

But about two weeks later, she tried to transfer around $3,000 to another account claiming it was for her birthday celebration. UOB thought it strange and noted that her birthday was earlier in the year.

The bank froze her account when it detected the account she was trying to transfer the sum to had been flagged as suspicious.

She stormed back to the branch, where she railed against Mr Wong, saying: “Despite my age, I’m very sharp. You’re not even as sharp as me. You are not doing me any favours.”

She also threatened to write to their chief executive, adding: “I’ll make sure you lose your job.”

Mr Wong said most customers are defensive and upset when their transactions are blocked, but bank staff have to try various ways of convincing them.

This includes asking if their family is aware of the situation, and explaining how this could be a scam.

In the woman’s case, it took him a week to convince her.

She went to the branch every other day and cried, shouted at and threatened bank staff. It was scary, he said, but he kept his cool.

After he roped in the police’s Anti-Scam Centre to convince her, she finally agreed not to transfer any money.

Another case in September saw him and his colleague, assistant branch manager Sheila Yap, being yelled at by a woman in her 60s.

The woman had also fallen for a love scam and requested to transfer more than $20,000 to another account.

While at the bank, she was on the phone with the scammer calling him “bao bao” (“baby” in Mandarin).

The two colleagues showed her news articles on scams and asked if she had seen her lover before, but the woman only grew angrier.

Said Mr Wong: “She scolded us: ‘You black-hearted people are stopping me and my baby!’ It was so loud, customers outside the room asked us what happened.”

Ms Yap called the police, who arrived and spoke to the woman, finally convincing her to make a police report.

Said Mr Wong: “We actually felt troubled by how she had scolded us, but at the same time, we knew we had to help her. If we don’t, our customers will lose all their hard-earned money.”

Days later, she returned to the bank and thanked them for stopping her from making the transfer.

Ms Grace Goh, an investigation specialist in DBS Bank’s anti-scam team, met a female customer in October who fell for a government impersonation scam.

The woman had received a call from “DBS” about a purported transaction, and was directed to another call with the “Monetary Authority of Singapore”, who told her to make payments to a certain account.

The first transaction, worth almost six figures, went through. But the second, also worth almost six figures, was blocked.

Ms Goh, whose job involves calling customers whose transactions are flagged, said the woman insisted they were for investments.

She was condescending and sarcastic, saying she knew this was not fraudulent because she had made a lot of investments, said Ms Goh.

Eventually, the woman mentioned the “DBS” call. Ms Goh found out that the bank had not called her that day, and convinced her to make a police report.

Ms Goh said customers who make legitimate transactions also vent their frustrations on bank staff when asked necessary verification questions.

She said: “Sometimes we get frustrated and feel sad customers are not appreciative, or we feel helpless, because we are just trying to help them.”

OCBC Bank’s customer service manager Wong Yew Kin, 57, recalls having to keep calm despite getting frustrated when dealing with a customer in her 60s caught up in a love scam.

The woman had gone to the bank’s Bedok branch in May and wanted to make a transfer of about $89,000 to a third party, after receiving instructions to do so from a man she had met online.

She transferred the sum to her bank account from her Central Provident Fund account, nearly wiping it out.

Bank staff learnt she was promised more than $2 million from her online friend.

Mr Wong said that while the woman was cooperative in producing documentation bank staff had asked for, she appeared to be in a trance and wanted to get the transaction over and done with.

He tried telling her it was a scam, and showed her news reports of scams to get her to see the light.

He said: “Despite what I told her, it was like she was hypnotised. After listening, she still kept saying, ‘My friend asked me to send. After sending this, I will get my $2 million.’”

Bank staff contacted the authorities, who eventually persuaded her not to go through with the transaction.

OCBC said this was one of 45 scams thwarted by its branch employees in 2023, preventing losses of more than $720,000.

In 2022, they prevented 27 scams, saving customers more than $550,000. In both years, love and investment scams made up about 80 per cent of the scams prevented.

In tackling scams, bank staff suffer abuse from scam victims and potential perpetrators.

Mr Wong recounted a case where a man in his 20s came to the branch in March after he could not withdraw money at an ATM.

Checks by staff revealed his account had been frozen by the authorities. The police freeze bank accounts which they suspect to be involved in illegal activities, including scams.

Not permitted to divulge this information to the customer, staff informed him he could not withdraw money temporarily.

Mr Wong said the irate man raised his voice at him and a colleague, eventually leaving after he was given an e-mail address to contact for more information.

A Citibank spokesperson said its fraud management team detected a potentially suspicious transaction of $50,000 in 2022.

The customer had insisted on the transfer, so the bank’s staff alerted the authorities, who stopped an attempted impersonation scam, said Citibank, without divulging further details.

A police spokesperson said they engage scam victims when these individuals refuse to cooperate with bank staff. The victims would be advised to stop further transactions and make a police report immediately.

Dr Ken Ung, a psychiatrist at Adam Road Medical Centre, said scammers brainwash victims by preying on their mental states and emotions such as fear, love and greed.

On why scam victims are resistant to good advice, Dr Ung said: “They want to believe what they want to believe, because they’ve already invested so much energy, time, effort, resources and finances into it.”

For Ms Goh from DBS, it means she must be persistent in helping customers see through the lies.

She said: “I’d rather ask one more question, and (the customers) scold me, than to ask one question fewer and then the money goes out.”

The Straits Times

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