Con men and crooked cops

ARE Malaysians really so gullible? The amount of money being lost to scammers is indeed mind-boggling – RM2.5bil last year and RM2.8bil in 2018. And based on the growing number of cases, it is likely to be more in 2020.

Four years ago, a study conducted by the Telenor Group in four Asian countries – India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – found that we were the most vulnerable to online scams, with 46% of respondents saying they had been victims.

The study found that one-in-five people had been victims to Internet auction frauds and online dating scams while one-in-10 had their Facebook accounts hacked.

The top three means then were work-from-home con businesses, sham online auctions and love/online dating ruses.

Today, the Macau scam appears to be the most lucrative con of choice. When it first surfaced three years ago, criminals used three methods to scam victims – the lucky draw lure, impersonating as kidnappers or spoofing as the police or other enforcement authorities.

For the first, potential victims would get phone calls saying they had won millions from random lucky draws run by Hong Kong and Macau companies. The caller provides a contact number to claim the prize but with the condition that the person pays taxes and insurance to a specific account before any payment is made. Driven by greed, many people fall for the trick.

Fake kidnapping claims are also used by scammers to fool victims into believing that a family member has been abducted. They are warned not to contact the police and told to pay the ransom money into a certain bank account.

The most common method employed by scammers now is impersonating police officers or court officials to call potential victims through voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), with the number appearing to be from a trusted government department or agency.

The person would be told about an investigation into a crime, purportedly committed by him or her – usually money laundering, involvement in a hit-and-run accident or drug trafficking, for example – and be given a choice of “settlement”.

After putting the person into fear with threats of arrest and freezing of assets, the caller would be told to transfer a certain amount of money into a “mule account” of the syndicate.

There are two kinds of mule accounts – accounts created by criminals using stolen or fake identities, and accounts belonging to real bank customers who had allowed crooks to use them for illegal activities. Mule accounts enable fraudulent transactions to become irreversible and untraceable.

Since the beginning of this month, three women – a 90-year-old retiree, a 50-year-old bank manager and a 49-year-old teacher – lost close to RM7mil in total to scammers using such accounts.

Last week, Deputy IGP Datuk Seri Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani urged Malaysians to use the Semak Mule online application, launched by the force in Jan 2019, to check suspicious accounts. He said 28,508 scamming cases were reported last year involving 18,130 mule accounts while the year before, 23,788 cases were traced to 13,513 mule accounts.

It may be a good app to prevent more people from becoming victims, but it appears that police personnel, including several senior officers, are part of such syndicates or at the least acting as protectors.

Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has nabbed 13 police officers so far in connection with investigations into an online gambling and money laundering racket. Their involvement came to light after the arrests of 11 persons, including a Datuk Seri and his wife, alleged to be involved in a Macau scam syndicate.

A video of the high-profile couple celebrating at a lavish birthday party went viral last week, along with another video of their appearance in court, wearing orange lock-up clothes.

The syndicate, which has apparently been operating for years, was busted on Oct 1. The MACC seized RM80mil from 730 bank accounts, RM5mil in cash and 28 luxury cars, all of which are expected to be forfeited to the government.

It has been reported that local celebrities and personalities were among victims of the scam, some of whom might have either knowingly or unwittingly accepted money from the syndicate to fund their businesses.

Of the senior police officers arrested, two are a department head and deputy department head of a state police contingent, with the ranks of Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP), while three are district police chiefs – two of whom are ACPs and the other a Superintendent.

They were suspected of abusing their powers to protect the syndicate for money or other benefits.

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador has since instructed the directors of the Integrity and Standard Compliance Department, Criminal Investigation Department and Commercial Crime Investigation Department to conduct a thorough probe and also assist the MACC in its investigations.

He has also given the assurance that any wrongdoings by those in the police force will not be tolerated and there would be no compromise on this, adding that there would be “no mercy” for crooked cops who dared to tarnish the image of the police force.

The police force is a crucial part of the country’s criminal justice system. Besides its role in the prevention and investigation of corruption, it plays a major part in maintaining peace and security and the rule of law.

As the effectiveness of any police force is hinged upon the trust of the people it serves, it must be free of corruption and uphold the highest standards of integrity and accountability.

Media consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by Greek dramatist Sophocles: “Things gained through unjust fraud are never secure.” The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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