Retiree loses $1,078,053.62 in 15 days to FB friend: She borrowed from son, used CPF and bank loan

Aqil Hamzah
The Straits Times
Oct 17, 2023

Accepting a Facebook friend request from a stranger who asked for help has turned into a nightmare for a 65-year-old Singaporean retiree, who then lost her life savings of $1,078,053.62 in only 15 days.

Madam Tan (not her real name) met a man, “Alvin”, on the social media platform in August, and he claimed to be the Singaporean chief executive of an interior design firm in Britain. He said he was about to complete his final project – a hotel in London – before retirement.

Alvin then asked her to facilitate payments for him – he told her that he could not procure materials from companies in China, and had been referred to a particular one in Sabah. But as he could not speak Mandarin, he needed her to act as an intermediary.

As she was initially distrustful, he made “bank transfers” to her account that were worth more than the cost of the materials, reassuring her that it would be credited within the span of two to four days. He even showed her transfer statements from British bank Barclays that not only eased her fears, but also convinced her to part with her money.

Except that it was all a ruse.

The transfer statements Madam Tan received, seen by The Straits Times, had telltale signs that they were fake. First, there were the different font sizes used across the three documents. The dates also appeared to be formatted haphazardly, ranging from “Sep 04” to “Sep 5” and then “Sep 07”, among other inconsistencies.

ST has contacted Barclays with copies of the alleged transactions to verify if they are genuine.

Between Sept 4 and 19, however, Madam Tan did not know any better. Although she was aware that she had not received any deposits into her bank account, she believed the scammer, who had told her the transfers would take a few days to be processed.

When told that she needed to continue making payments for additional fees such as shipping and taxes, she made 22 transfers of at least $20,000 each.

For her final transaction of $50,000, she even borrowed money from her 30-year-old son.

She said: “I had to take out money from my CPF account, and even took a bank loan of $24,000 to continually make the payments.

“I didn’t have enough money and asked my son for $10,000, which made him suspicious, but I told him that it was for a business opportunity, and that I would repay him when my fixed deposits matured.”

However, she had already withdrawn her fixed deposits by then to fund the transactions.

The scam was finally uncovered on Sept 20, after Madam Tan received a phone call from a Malaysian number and was told that her British “business partner” was detained at the airport for having too much cash on hand. Alvin also told her the same story, which made it all the more believable.

She was told that in order for him to be cleared by the Malaysian authorities, she needed to pay $98,000.

However, before she could approach her 32-year-old daughter for money, her son stopped her, telling her the large sums being requested were sure signs that she was being scammed.

When she attempted to contact the scammers to confront them, they ignored her.

Of the three phone numbers that Madam Tan provided ST with, calls and messages to two lines went unanswered. The third number, which she had used to contact the alleged scammer via WhatsApp, was no longer linked to the messaging app.

“My children are so worried about me now, because it looks like I cannot retire already,” said Madam Tan, who declined to state her children’s occupations.

“I’ve been very frugal throughout my life. I worked when I was younger, and the money I saved was for me to use for healthcare in my older years, but now I’ve not only wiped out 40 years of my savings, I’m also in debt because of the bank loan.”

She added that she has filed two police reports. The police confirmed they are investigating the matter.

Her daughter also helped her to write to UOB and Standard Chartered, which she has accounts with, as well as DBS Bank and OCBC Bank, where she had transferred the money to, for help.

All four banks told ST that they will assist the police with their investigations.

A UOB spokesman said: “We regret that Madam Tan fell victim to an investment scam. It is understandably a difficult time for her and her family.”

He added that bank transfers above $5,000 require authentication through UOB’s digital token, and stressed that the security measures adopted by banks are not foolproof. “Our customers remain the singular most effective defence, and we strongly urge them to exercise vigilance and caution in this ever evolving threat landscape.”

Standard Chartered said: “We have strong security measures in place to monitor suspicious transactions, and continue to urge all clients to stay vigilant.”

Madam Tan is among a growing number of scam victims.

In the first half of 2023, there were 22,339 scam cases reported, a 64.5 per cent rise from the 13,576 reported during the same period in 2022.

Victims lost a total of $334.5 million from January to June, a slight dip from the $342.1 million that was lost during the same period last year.

The Straits Times

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