Online scam: Clerk loses $80k, tricked into being money mule

It had all the qualities of a fairy-tale romance to Cassandra Tan (not her real name): meeting an eligible American-Chinese businessman online and falling in love, with the promise of a happy-ever-after.

But she was just being led down the garden path. Over two years, Ms Tan, a clerk in her 50s, was not only cheated of $80,000 by her online “lover”, but she had also been manipulated into being a money mule.

She first met the man on Facebook in mid-2018. He claimed to be a 59-year-old American-Chinese businessman working for “Keppel” and doing so overseas.

He proceeded to spin tales, claiming, among other things, that his money had been “taken by the CIA”, and that he and his staff were “trapped at Customs and needed money to get out”. He also sent images of “himself” in hospital, feigning serious medical emergencies.

“I started falling in love with him. I also took pity on him and wanted to help,” she said.

This ruse went on until October last year, during which Ms Tan transferred $80,000 of her savings to him over multiple transactions.

But it was not over. The man asked her in May this year to allow him to use her account to purchase bitcoin credits. He made three transfers of $5,000 to her account between May and June, telling her to keep $500 each time she bought bitcoin credits on his behalf.

“Every transaction, I kept $500 for my own usage. As he owed me so much money, I thought it is only right for me to keep $1,500 for myself,” Ms Tan said.

The police stepped in after they detected the suspicious transfers. It later came to light that she had not only been the victim of an Internet love scam, but was also being made use of to launder illegal monies.

Ms Tan was one of 2,500 people investigated between January and August this year for acting as money mules. Investigations into her case have concluded, and she has been issued an advisory.

Deputy Superintendent Jane Lim of the Commercial Affairs Department said: “When scammers forge relationships with their targets and build trust over time, it becomes easy to get someone to give up their bank information or transfer funds.”

The police in separate statements cited two cases involving money mules. “Nelson”, a 26-year-old Singaporean man, was sentenced to 10 months in jail for using his bank account to receive $36,400 between March and April 2017 via 27 bank transfers and cash deposits. He became a money mule after procuring sexual services from an unknown woman on online classifieds website Locanto and subsequently made multiple cash transfers on behalf of a man said to be her “boss”. He converted $34,489.25 into Alipay credits for this “boss” over 63 transactions. Nelson then kept the balance for his personal use.

Last Friday, hotel cleaner Noorhudah Sa’ad, 47, was sentenced to 22 months and three weeks’ jail over money laundering offences.

She had been acting as a money mule for her online lover “Lucky Mentus” and a friend known to her as “Lynn”, by withdrawing the funds received to hand to contacts in Singapore or Malaysia.

About $187,560, derived from various business e-mail scams and Internet love scams, was laundered in this way from December 2015 to September 2016.

DSP Lim cautioned against agreeing to receive or transfer any money on behalf of others, especially if the sources of the funds are unknown. “Never share your one-time PIN, or allow anyone to use your bank account, e-wallet, or cryptocurrency account, as you are responsible for all the transactions made through your accounts.”

For acting as a money mule to help a criminal retain benefits from illicit activities, one can be fined up to $500,000, jailed for up to 10 years, or both.

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