Scammers in their sights


Scammers beware: DCP Sasikala says the pandemic has been a very profitable time for scammers but the cops are hot on the trail of these criminal syndicates. — LOW BOON TAT/The Star

THE fight against scammers never ends, and only gets harder as technology advances. For those in the Bukit Aman Commercial Crime Investigation Department (CCID), working on these crimes is challenging, especially when it comes to building prosecutable cases against syndicates.

Finding a link between criminal and victim takes time and technical know-how. And with the Covid-19 pandemic leading to countless lost jobs, many victims are falling for the allure of quick, easy money.

Speaking to Sunday Star exclusively after the recently launched commercial crimes prevention campaign, CCID deputy director (Investigations) Deputy Comm Datuk Sasikala Devi Subramaniam explains the difficulties in bringing down scammers and how greed and desperation have led to empty wallets and misery among victims.

Greed + Fear = Profits

The pandemic has been a very profitable time for scammers.

According to the CCID, cybercrimes involving online purchases have more than doubled since 2018, with 6,985 cases recorded between Jan 1 and Sept 15 of this year. For the whole of 2020 the department recorded 5,847 cases. Scam investments cases also saw a jump from 2020: Last year, 1,672 cases were recorded compared with 2,224 cases between Jan 1 and Sept 15 this year.

DCP Sasikala notes that the pandemic brought very real financial fears and that scammers have capitalised on that.

“The packages can be so attractive, such as earning income in three hours with small capital. When once or twice you are given returns, you would think it is a legitimate scheme – what more when friends and relatives entice you to join them.

“Then you’ll start seeing the reports coming in, with friends and family members becoming enemies and filing reports against one another after they suffer losses. But they are all in the same boat,” she says.

Loan scams are also rising following the pandemic, she says, noting that people are forced to borrow money just to survive.

Those working from home are also more susceptible to scams, she adds: “You have pop up adverts and such, and people start exploring them, trying their luck. Based on our records there are victims every day.

“People tend to believe and invest more and more with each transaction but they are asked to deposit money into individual accounts, not into a company account. It doesn’t strike them as odd and all they can think about are the figures and the money that could be earned,” she explains.

Following the money

Bringing down scam syndicates is a long process due to the nature of their operations.

“They all work in silos. The group that finds victims doesn’t meet the one that handles the money. We can raid call centres but how do we connect the transactions to victim police reports? Call centres don’t keep the details so this is a challenge for us, to connect the dots.

“The syndicates are all stand-alone. Not one person does A to Z,” she says.

Most of the time the police work backwards, following the money. However, the constant and swift transfers of funds can complicate investigations.

“The money is transferred into various bank accounts but by the time we track one account, it spiders out to so many others. The person that withdraws the money doesn’t know who deposited it in the first place.

“It takes time for us because we need to know which banks are involved but for the syndicates, they have all the information at hand,” she says.

New technology, such as the advent of cryptocurrencies and e-wallets, has also given criminals more avenues through which they can move funds.

“The world is going paperless and I’m pretty sure cases will rise with that. In the future, people might not even use bank accounts, just e-wallets instead.

“We have to face these challenges. In fact, we have foreseen crypto being an issue hence the creation of our cryptocurrency wing,” she says.

But that’s not to say that the CCID hasn’t had any success stories – DCP Sasikala emphasises that many groups have been taken down.

“We have dismantled a lot of groups, be it call centres or those that transfer the money around. The point here is for us to dismantle these groups so that they do not mushroom.

“This is a clear message to these scammers: we are on their backs,” she says.

Partnerships with overseas counterparts are also vital in the battle.

“In terms of cooperation we have a very good network, especially with neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Indonesia, and further away we have good relations with the United States, Australia and Japan as well, among others.

“We need that because crime is borderless now. No one can work alone.”

Beware mule account holders

Being the common link between victim and suspect, mule account holders are among the first to come on the police radar.

“Most of the cases we charge, we go for the mule account holders because in a way without them these crimes will not take place. That’s why we constantly put out this message to the public to not become mule account holders.

“They are the first people that we charge because they are the only direct nexus that we have between the victim and the criminals.”

Not only do the police take action but banks too attempt to make life difficult for these mule account holders, especially if the police have listed their names in the Semak Mule database.

“This will lead to problems when those account holders need to use their accounts legitimately. For instance, they would need a proper bank account for work purposes but the banks would have flagged them as mule account holders.

“They don’t realise this now but it will bring them more problems in the future,” she says.

You can check mule accounts at abm.org.my/mule-account, the website of the Association of Banks in Malaysia. Those with queries about scams can also contact their nearest police station.

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