SINGAPORE: This is not another sad story of a victim scammed out of his hard-earned cash but an incredible payback tale of how a young Singapore woman rallied an online campaign to get back at the kind of fraudsters who cheated her out of her life savings.
Instead of wallowing in depression after losing S$80,000 (RM248,517), the 34-year-old digital content creator turned her agony into strength and built an anti-scam website to warn potential victims of the dangers posed by online crooks.
Barely eight months on, the Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso) has succeeded in rallying an international band of around 60 victims as core volunteers. They have intervened in the nick of time and saved more than 5,000 people in various countries, including Singapore, from losing millions of dollars to scammers.
The team is also sharing information gathered from victims with law enforcement agencies here and abroad so that the fraud syndicates can be taken down.
The Gaso volunteers, who are based here and in countries such as the United States, Britain, France, China, Australia, Thailand and Malaysia, protect themselves by using only nicknames. For instance, the founder has chosen “Xellos” as her moniker after the powerful character in the Slayers, a popular Japanese manga series.
But she says: “I don’t consider myself as a super-hero like the character because people are still being scammed. The best way to fight back is to make people smart.
“When a new scam is uncovered, we quickly put it up to warn everyone so that we can put the scammers out of business.”
Her volunteers were among 900 victims worldwide who had turned to Gaso for support after they were collectively conned out of more than S$188mil (RM584.02mil) in the past two years alone.
About 50 people here have also turned to Gaso for support after they lost around S$10mil (RM31.06mil) to a variety of investment-related scams. At least two victims lost between S$1mil (RM3.10mil) and S$2mil (RM6.21mil) each after they were lured into fictitious investments.
Her plight saved others
Xellos herself fell victim when she thought she was getting a second chance at love when she met a foreigner through a dating site in March last year, about three months after her marriage ended.
Although they never met in person, the man chatted with or video-called her daily, and even arranged for flowers to be delivered to her home on at least two special occasions.
After wooing her for almost two months, the man, who claimed to be a trader in Taiwan, popped the question – would you join me for an investment for our future?
She said “yes” and began to deposit her money into the joint investment account that was set up by him.
As it turned out, he was no Romeo but a devious scammer. In that brief “courtship”, the woman ended up giving the crook all her money as well as intimate photographs of herself.
She learnt she was cheated only when she discovered that the online trading site where her money was parked was fake.
She says: “I googled and realised that I was a victim of the pig-butchering scam that was rampant in Taiwan then. I fell into depression. I was also heavily in debt as I had borrowed money from friends and relatives for that fake investment.
“I was in deep shock and even attempted suicide by inflicting harm on myself.”
The scam is dubbed ‘pig-butchering’ because the crooks view their victims as helpless creatures that can be easily led to the slaughterhouse.
In this case, even after his cover was blown, the crook did not let up in trying to squeeze more money from her by threatening to expose her photos online if she did not continue to pay him.
“I refused to give in, told him off and made a police report. He then got his boss to threaten me. I just blocked their calls,” she says.
This turned out to be a blessing of sorts because the threats gave her the impetus to lift herself out of depression. Not long after, she worked tirelessly for eight straight days to create the Gaso website.
When victims are ‘brainwashed’
She notes that she and her volunteers make good counsellors who can connect with other victims because all of them had dealings with scammers and also suffered the pain of being conned.
“Still, it is often hard to convince people that they are being scammed. The victims often get brainwashed and trusted the scammers after talking to them for weeks or months. You can end up being stupid, just like what I went through,” she says.
She recounted how her “boyfriend” pretended to be sincere in having a joint investment account by putting his own money there first. After she took the bait, he then claimed that the account had to be topped up to about S$300,000 (RM932,042), or they could lose the profits already earned from their joint investment.
“When I said I won’t have this kind of money, he started to make me feel bad by saying that he had to take money from his company’s account to pay for my share. He also started crying until I thought it was really my fault.”
Trusting the man turned out to be her undoing because she ended up withdrawing all her money and borrowing from relatives and friends just to come up with S$80,000 (RM248,517).
Ironically, being short of cash to pay for her share was how she found out it was a scam – the trading company never chased her even though she missed the payment deadline.
Scammers use same method
While the first meeting may differ for other victims, Xellos says the process of the scam is always the same – gain the trust, start an investment and then vanish with the money.
“When I started Gaso, my main intention was to help fellow Singaporeans. But it turns out that I am helping more Americans as many of them are being scammed too.”
Recently she helped a man in the US lodge a police report here after he was duped into transferring over US$200,000 (RM835,980) to mule accounts in Singapore.
“His daughter became a volunteer for Gaso because she was furious that her dad had to declare bankruptcy after losing the money. This kind of scam has to end,” she says.
About 40% of the victims Gaso is helping are suffering from severe trauma and depression after they lost their life savings. Most victims were manipulated into taking loans to join fake investments, leading to a number of them having to sell their homes to pay off their debt or be declared bankrupt.
Ironically, some victims actually ask to join the syndicates as scammers out of sheer desperation to try to “earn” their money back. Others are blackmailed and coerced because the syndicates had nude photos of some victims.
“Some of these scammers actually reached out to Gaso for help too,” notes Xellos. “Some were beaten and so we also try to get them out.”
Most scammers try to lure people to invest on fake trading platforms, so Gaso has published on its website thousands of domains in alphabetical order to allow potential victims to do their own checks.
“These scams are no longer personal to me. I have a purpose now and that is to take out as many of such scammers as possible,” says Xellos, in the true spirit of her Slayers namesake. – The Straits Times (Singapore)/Asia News Network