121 bank accounts linked to OCBC scam frozen by police, about S$2 million recovered: Desmond Tan

The minister noted that the incident had occurred amidst a rise in scams.

Matthias Ang | February 17, 2022, 12:46 PM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

A total of 121 bank accounts have been frozen by the police as of Feb. 13, in relation to the recent OCBC phishing scam, while around S$2 million has been recovered, Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said in Parliament on Feb. 15.

In addition, about S$2.2 million of victims' funds have been traced to 89 overseas accounts.

The police have also found thus far that at least 107 local and 171 overseas IP addresses were linked to the unauthorised access of the victims' internet banking accounts, with many of the phishing scam's websites hosted by web hosting companies that are based overseas.

Police have commenced investigations into the local IP addresses

Tan was responding to several questions posed in Parliament by Members of Parliament Tan Wu Meng, Sitoh Yih Pin and Dennis Tan about an update on the ongoing investigations into the OCBC phishing scam.

He noted that the police have since commenced investigations into the local IP addresses linked to the scam, and the owners of the local money mule accounts.

The police are also working with the Interpol and foreign law enforcement agencies to investigate the beneficiaries of the funds transferred overseas, and the hosts of the scam websites, he said.

"As investigations are right now ongoing, we are not able to divulge any more information at this moment," he added.

Scams are on the rise

The minister further highlighted that the phishing scam had occurred amidst a rise in the number of scams that have occurred in Singapore.

In 2021, 23,931 cases of scams were reported, of which 5,020 were phishing scam cases.

This is more than a fourfold increase from the 5,147 cases of scams reported in 2017, of which only 16 were phishing scam cases, he pointed out.

With regard to phishing scams involving SMSes impersonating banks in Singapore in particular, there were no cases in 2017, but there were 91 in 2018, 57 in 2019, and 149 in 2020, before increasing significantly to 1,021 in 2021 in view of the OCBC phishing scams.

Tan noted that the OCBC phishing scam alone accounted for 790 customers in the two months from Dec 2021 to Jan 2022 – by far the largest phishing scam involving spoofed SMSes.

He said:

"The use of a combination of highly-orchestrated tactics, involving spoofed SMSes appearing in the same thread as genuine messages from the bank and links directing victims to a scam website, as well as the large number of customers targeted in the OCBC scam, show that now, the threat is significantly heightened."

As for card fraud cases reported by major credit card issuers in Singapore to MAS in 2021, this formed less than 0.1 per cent of total credit card transactions, he added.

What are the measures that have been taken?

In response to questions as to whether the police is "sufficiently resourced" to tackle scams, Tan replied, "Police are extremely stretched. Our officers have been trying to cope with increasing workload and expectations, without proportionate increase in manpower. We will need to review this untenable situation."

As for current measures that have been taken, Tan referenced the establishment of the the Anti-Scam Centre (ASC) in 2019 as a specialised unit focused on anti-scam interventions and enforcement.

He elaborated:

"Since 2019, the ASC has frozen around 24,000 bank accounts suspected of being involved in scam activities, and recovered about S$160 million in scam proceeds.

This would include part of the S$17 million lost since 2020 to about 1,300 cases of phishing scams involving spoofed SMSes impersonating banks in Singapore, a question which Dr Tan Wu Meng asked about. SPF does not track the amount of funds recovered by the scam type."

The centre also conducted 26 island-wide anti-scam operations, which resulted in the arrest of around 7,500 money mules and scammers, in 2021, he added.

"The ASC uses technology to automate manual work processes, such as the generation of electronic production orders to banks for the freezing of bank accounts associated with scams, and sending out personalised crime advisories to members of the public. This will allow the Police resources to focus on essential criminal investigations and enforcement work."

Tan also highlighted that the police will be forming an Anti-Scam Command this year to consolidate expertise in scams across the police Land units, and thereby further improve coordination of anti-scam enforcement and investigations.

Main challenge is that the vast majority of scams are perpetrated overseas

As for the main challenge facing authorities, Tan said that the vast majority of scams are perpetrated by syndicates that are based overseas.

He gave the following three reasons as to why such cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute:

  1. The ability to solve these cases depends on the level of cooperation from overseas law enforcement agencies, as well as their ability to track down scammers in their own jurisdictions.
  2. These scammers are typically part of an organised criminal syndicate and run sophisticated transnational operations which are not easy to detect or to dismantle. The syndicates are also well-resourced and adept at using technology to cover their tracks.
  3.  When money has already been transferred out of Singapore, recovery is very difficult.

He added, "Where we have been able to (recover money), it involved close partnerships with financial institutions, in particular by having a DBS staff co-located with SPF (the police) at the ASC to provide swifter and real-time coordination and intervention."

The ASC and Monetary of Singapore are also working with more banks to co-locate their staff at the ASC, to further enhance the ASC’s capabilities to freeze accounts as well as to trace the flow of money.

Public education still remains key

This brought up Tan's following point: "Enforcement, by itself, is not sufficient."

A discerning public is the best defence against scams and therefore the government have been creating strong public awareness on scams, Tan added.

Measures that the government have taken include a public education campaign called "Spot the Signs. Stop the Crimes.".

This effort has involved the dissemination of materials advising the public on scam prevention tips, such as never to share one-time-passwords, or OTPs, with unverified parties and to beware of requests for gift cards and online credits.

The government has also rolled out prevention initiatives targeted at specific population segments.

Tan highlighted that different profiles of victim fall prey to different types of scam.

For phishing scams, job scams, e-commerce, investment, loan scams, China official impersonation scams, as well as fake gambling platform scams, the government has found that young adults between 20 and 39 years old formed the largest group of victims, compared to other age groups.

As for social media impersonation scams, Internet love scams, and fake friend call scams, adults between 40 and 59 years old formed the largest group of victims.

Public urged to download ScamShield

Tan subsequently urged the public to download ScamShield to filter out messages and block scam calls.

He said:

"To date, ScamShield has been downloaded about 257,000 times. About 3.7 million SMSes and calls have been picked up as potential scams by the in-app algorithm, and user self-reporting through the app. About 15,500 phone numbers have also been blocked. We are unable to provide Mr Gerald Giam with the percentage of scam calls and SMSes successfully blocked, as ScamShield does not track the number of calls and SMSes made or received by the users."

As for the OCBC phishing scam, Tan said that ScamShield picked up and filtered about 2,000 scam messages.

"Unfortunately, a lot more scam messages managed to reach the SMS inbox of ScamShield users, mainly because they appeared in the same thread as legitimate messages. This gap will be addressed as agencies enhance our SMS ecosystem as Minister Josephine Teo explained," he noted.

"That said, ScamShield in itself is not a panacea, and all parts of the ecosystem needs to work together to combat scams, including vigilance from our members of the public. "

Follow and listen to our podcast here

Top Screenshot from gov.sg YouTube