Someone I know was recently the victim of a phone scam. Yes, one of the “DHL” scams that has been reported on the news in recent months.
(For those of you with whom I have shared this story already, please keep the identity of the person confidential as she does not wish to be identified.)
The person is a 70 year old retiree. She is so risk adverse that her only form of investment is to put her money in fixed deposit accounts. Yet, over the course of 5 days, she almost lost her life’s savings.
I won’t attempt to recount the whole story as there are quite a lot of details that are not clear to me.
What struck me was the level of control that the team of 3 scammers had over her:-
1. They caused her to think that she had committed a crime in China (“Shenzhen customs have intercepted 8 forged passports which you attempted to send through DHL.”)
2. One of them impersonated a Chinese Customs officer who forced her to divulge how much money she had and with which bank, and details of her all immovable and movable assets. (“You are also suspected of money-laundering. To investigate, we need your bank and property details.”)
3. They directed her to a webpage which showed that there was an arrest warrant issued by the Chinese police. The “arrest warrant” even had her full name, age and passport number. (At the time, it didn’t strike her as odd that the Chinese “arrest warrant” stated her name in English and not in Chinese characters).
4. Two of them even had an “argument” over the conference call in front of her. The Chinese customs officer chided the first caller for wanting to help her clear her name.
5. The scammers told her that in order to clear her name, she had to remit money to them to aid in their investigations. (“We need you to send all your money so that we can check if it is clean. Once we completed our investigations, you will get your money back.” WTF?!? Were they going to check for stains on money??)
6. She was told not to tell anyone this investigation. Otherwise, she would be guilty of divulging China’s state secrets and imprisoned for 15 years.
7. There were multiple people who, along the way, noticed something amiss and asked her if something was wrong. Yet she managed to fob them off. One of them was the bank teller at the first bank where she withdrew the initial sum. (The teller asked her if she was being intimidated. She said no, our of fear. She even yelled at the bank teller that “this is my money! why cant I take it out!”)
Another was the bank teller at the second bank where she withdrew the second sum of money. (That bank teller said that they would need to inform the other joint account holder of the withdrawal, as the entire account balance was being withdrawn. She warned them not to do so, and that this was all her money and not his anyway.)
Even the staff at 2 of the 3 remittance companies she went to at People’s Park Complex to remit the monies to the scammers asked her if she was under duress. (All this time, the scammers had kept her on her mobile phone. They could hear everything and were coaching / influencing her reply.)
8. She says that she felt as if she was in a daze while all this was happening. She finally snapped out of it when, while waiting for the 3rd remittance company’s staff member to process her request, she saw a notice warning customers about phone scams. (When she saw the notice, she snapped into her senses, looked at the staff member, pointed at the notice, and pointed at her mobile phone. The staff member quickly led her to a seat in a quieter corner of the shop, and called the police. All this while, the scammers were still on the line. The staff member helped her make up reasons why the remittance wasn’t done yet, and provided moral support until the police arrived.)
9. It was not as if she was totally alone for the 5 days that this was happening. Her sister and domestic helper were at home. She had met family members on the first day and the fourth day. Yet she appeared to be totally fine. (Well, by this I mean her usual quiet self.)
10. On hindsight, she agrees that some of the scammers’ reasoning were a little strange, but there was just something about the way that the executed the whole thing that made it very convincing and put her in a state of panic and fear. I asked her why she even believed the first caller who told her she had a package of 8 fake passports. She said she knew it wasn’t her, but they made her feel that she needed to do what she could to clear her name.
To me, the biggest indication of the sense of helplessness that she must have felt was when she did not even dare to reach out to me when she was told that she was under police investigation. When I asked her why she didn’t call me, since, I am a lawyer after all, she said that it was because the scammers said “why do you need a lawyer if you’re innocent?”
This story, fortunately, has a happy ending. She managed to get all her money back. This could not have happened had the remittance companies not been vigilant. What she lost was interest on the fixed deposit monies for breaking them prematurely. (We plan to write to the two banks to ask them to reinstate the interest on a compassionate basis.)
I am sharing this with you because you may know someone (an elderly family member or neighbour or friend) who may be vulnerable. It is not enough to merely tell them to “be careful of phone scams”. The scammers’ key tactic is to create fear, and to isolate the victim from his or her family so that the victim feels helpless. Therefore, it is important to also tell these vulnerable people that you are there for them if they ever need help or if there is ever anything that is bothering them. It is also important to give them the assurance that they are not alone.
To the scammers, I have only one thing to say to you: MAY YOU ROT IN HELL. FOREVER.