SINGAPORE: When a 15-year-old girl saw a Roblox gift card being sold on Carousell for S$100 last October, she thought it was a good deal. It would cost her S$112 from the gaming platform's official website.
Melody (not her real name), who was playing the game Murder Mystery on the platform, wanted to use the in-game credits to buy weapons to level-up her character.
However, after the Secondary 3 student made payment on Carousell using PayLah!, the seller did not deliver the gift card and deleted the account.
Relating this anecdote about her client, Lauren Yeo, principal counsellor of Restart Counselling for Wellness, said the incident had emotionally impacted the girl and her mother.
She said the mother was upset that Melody did not inform her and that the hongbao money she deposited in her daughter's account had been used without her permission.
Three counsellors told The Straits Times that they have seen an increase in the number of clients below the age of 16 seeking help after encountering scams.
Chong Ee Jay, a cyber-wellness expert at Focus on the Family Singapore, said that he saw 12 such cases in 2021, up from seven in 2020.
These children were counselling clients or had sought help with Chong after workshops he conducted at schools.
Chua Sze Siong, chief therapist at counselling service Mindful Bear, said the service assisted five children who fell victim to scams in 2021, up from three in 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic could have contributed to a lack of peer support for children amid the switch between home-based learning and school interactions, Chua said.
"This peer support is really important as it helps children reduce the sense of loneliness," he added, noting that they will turn to devices or social media to spend their time, which puts them at higher risk of being exposed to scams.
The counsellors observed that the two most common variants involve children losing their gaming accounts or being cheated after buying non-existent gaming credits, as in Melody's case.
In the first variant, children are promised rare items by other players who befriend them, said Mr Chong.
An 11-year-old boy he counselled lost about S$500 worth of virtual items in Roblox after he was misled by another player into giving him his gaming account password.
The scammer had lied to the boy that he needed his log-in details to transfer a virtual sword, supposedly a rare item, to him.
Noting how children often feel the need to be accepted by their peers, Mr Chong said: "My client perceived that this gamer, who he saw as an older brother, could be trusted because he was always very helpful in the game and gave him advice on how to level up."
Andy Prakash, co-founder of cybersecurity firm Privacy Ninja, said that games which involve items that are highly rare and can only be obtained through loot boxes may incentivise children to take part in unsafe transactions.
Joanne Wong, head of non-profit agency Touch Cyber Wellness, said: "For premium items, no matter how much you grind, farm or play, it may not be easy to earn the currency needed to buy them."
Though the loss of such items may not take place in the real world, it can still have a deep emotional impact on children, the counsellors said.
"It can be tragic for children to lose access to their accounts," said Wong.
"They spend a lot of time (gaming). We can often be too quick to underestimate the pain they go through.
"Give them space to grieve or be upset, and understand that the best condition for them to learn their lesson is when they are not as agitated."
Chong said it is important for parents not to blame their children but instead help them and let them know they are tackling the incident as a family.
"They know they have made a mistake, but if they feel they are being labelled by their parents as one, it becomes more than just feelings of shame or guilt, but also affects their identity."
Tips on keeping children safe from online gaming scams
1. Play the game together as a family bonding activity
Children are more likely to confide in their parents if they feel the questions they are asked come from a place of curiosity rather than judgment.
Casually ask them what they will do if they encounter other players in the game who ask them for money and remind them to be careful when using in-game chats.
2. Implement parental controls
Turn on password settings for additional purchases made online or from mobile applications.
3. Do not link the child's gaming account to a credit card
If the child can be trusted with small purchases, top up a certain amount of funds into a prepaid debit card.
Once the funds are depleted, the child will have to approach the parent for a top-up request so their gaming behaviour can be better monitored.
4. Opt for buyer protection
If the child is buying gaming credits online, make sure they do so only on trusted e-commerce marketplaces.
For example, Carousell offers Carousell Protection, an escrow solution where payment is withheld until buyer and seller are satisfied.
5. Find a good time to educate your child
Talk to your child about the dangers of gaming scams when they are not busy gaming so they are more likely to listen.
If your child has fallen victim to a scam, wait until their emotions have stabilised before engaging them. – The Straits Times (Singapore)/Asia News Network
(Sources: Group-IB, Touch Cyber Wellness, Privacy Ninja)