Earlier this year, my mum shared her “secret” with me during an overseas WhatsApp call.
She told me that she had met someone online and found a new love — a man who calls himself "Chang Lee".
I am the eldest of three daughters and currently live in Los Angeles with my husband, a U.S. citizen. I have two younger sisters: Betty is currently attending university in Australia and Claire is a JC1 student in Singapore.
My parents’ relationship has always been rocky, with my mother having cheated on my father previously.
Despite this, I was initially happy for her because she sounded happier than she had been in a long time.
Who is this "Chang Lee"?
However, I eventually grew suspicious of the whole thing because there were several characteristics pointing to the dubiousness of his existence.
This is what she conveyed to me about him:
- She has been in contact with the man for over two months,
- He’s 44 years old (my mother is 52),
- He’s a mineral researcher currently based in Turkey and sole proprietor of his company, which frequently works on international projects, and
- He is a Chinese-American with first generation immigrant parents, from Taiwan and Vietnam, who have since passed away.
- He has also never married and intends to promptly marry my mother before moving her to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his hometown in the U.S., and
- Is a millionaire, who owns a Rolls-Royce, and has promised my mother many things besides love such as:
- a S$15,000 monthly allowance,
- paying for my sisters’ educations, and
- even purchasing a house in Los Angeles for me.
Which all sounds a little too good to be true.
But really, the biggest red flag was the fact that she has been transferring large amounts of money to him.
Mother transferred him about S$140,000
In three separate instances, my mother transferred more than US$100,000 (S$140,000) to a man called Azadeh Rohani Amiri in Istanbul, Turkey.
The first transaction was for US$17,000 on Sep. 17, the second was for €17,000 on Sep. 26, while the third involved €60,000 on Oct. 1.
Our family only discovered this on Oct. 9, after going though her purse and finding a brown envelope that contained foreign currency transfer forms from the bank.
An earthquake in Turkey just before the time of the second transaction
On Sep. 26, just a day before she made her second transfer to Azadeh, the city of Istanbul was struck by an earthquake at a magnitude of 5.8.
In the few days after, while we were in Malaysia visiting my aunt Eve after the quake, my mother kept recounting this story to us about "Chang Lee":
- That he had lost his bag on arrival in Turkey for his new work project.
- That the bag contained his wallet, US$7,000 and his U.S. passport.
- That he had been clever enough to leave US$4,000 in his luggage, which he used to pay for his hotel,
- But was unable to spend his U.S. dollars in Turkey as Turkey's desire to be part of the EU meant that only Euros were accepted.
- He then went to the U.S. embassy in Turkey to apply for a new passport.
- He also experienced a scary earthquake recently in Turkey, and
- Told my mother that she was his “lucky star”.
Other red flags about this mystery man
But even before we knew about the money transfers, we were already suspicious of "Chang Lee".
Our aunt had approached us, expressing grave concern for my mother’s affair, as it appeared similar to the pattern of a romance scammer potentially attempting to trick my mother into laundering money.
When we conducted online research about "Chang Lee", we found the following information:
- A phone number that did not match with his story of living in Philadelphia, PA, as it is a Skype number from Massachusetts,
- Almost no social media or online presence for his company, Luu Geotechnical Environmental Service, and
- A lack of social media for "Chang Lee" himself — no LinkedIn, no Facebook and a dead-looking Instagram profile.
Moreover, more than half of "Chang Lee"’s photos were geographically ambiguous, featuring heavily-filtered selfies and self-portraits with no friends to be cross-referenced.
Mother not convinced it is a scam
After researching “romance scams” and uncovering a whole plethora of cases on scamalert.sg, we also tried to warn my mother.
In response to the evidence laid out before her, my mother denied any possibility of such deceit and insisted that this person is both real and deeply in love with her.
She even highlighted that he had sent her a photo of his U.S. passport, to which I promptly told her that that even I could easily manipulate a photo of a passport page using Photoshop.
Subsequently, she became extremely defensive and refused to speak with us.
Three police reports made
We made a total of three police reports on Oct. 3, Oct. 4 and Oct. 9.
On Oct. 4, the police were called to our house after a confrontation with my mother about the matter saw her turn hysterical and threaten suicide.
When questioned by the police, my mother denied all claims of money transfers, and stated that her suicide threat was a bluff to get us to return her phone.
She repeated this reason when the officers found that she had also sent messages threatening the same to "Chang Lee" if he did not call her.
I recall that during our first trip to the neighbourhood police post, the police officer expressed sympathy for our situation.
But the truth is that there was little that law enforcement could do for us.
Apart from trying to convince my mother of the scams, we also tried calling the anti-scam hotline (1800-722-6688), but it did not provide us with much help either.
After all, it's also not a crime for my mother to send and receive money to whomever she wishes. And what can we, as her family, do if she refuses to admit that she is a victim?
Unable to get mother admitted to IMH
When my father confronted my mother over the bank transfer documents, my mother turned violent and hit him, although he did not fight back.
We considered admitting our mother to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), but were unable to do so.
While the police were still in our house, my father called 1777, the hotline for a non-emergency ambulance. However, when three paramedics arrived at our house, my mother refused to go with them.
She began exclaiming that she "wasn’t crazy", "didn’t need any help", and started complaining about her marriage.
We paid a cancellation fee of S$200 for the ambulance.
Still in contact with "Chang Lee"
My husband and I have since returned to the U.S..
My mother continues to give my father the cold shoulder over this and is apparently still in contact with "Chang Lee".
"Chang Lee" also arranged to meet my mother in Singapore on Oct. 27, but unsurprisingly, he did not show up. Despite this, my mother sent him even more more money two days later, according to my aunt.
We have since given up.
I've concluded that this mess is partly a result of my mother having suffered from postpartum depression for many years, as well as my parents' own marriage problems.
From this entire incident, I also learnt that trying to help a victim can feel like a lost cause if they refuse to believe they’re being scammed, refuse help, and choose not to report the crime.
I hope my story raises awareness about online scams because my family has experienced irreparable emotional damage, and we certainly don’t wish it upon anyone else.
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