Mobile phone users in S’pore to be given option to block overseas calls as part of new anti-scam measures

The move cuts off a key communication tool for fraudsters, as phone calls ranked among the top three methods scammers used to contact victims. — KUA CHEE SIONG/The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE: Mobile phone users can soon bar all overseas calls, as part of a new slew of anti-scam measures to come in 2024.

Singapore’s war on scams remains part of the Ministry of Communications and Information’s (MCI) main focus in the new year, said Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo in an interview with Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on Dec 18 on MCI’s digital priorities in 2024.

The authorities aim to work with Google to improve anti-malware measures on Android phones amid a scourge of malware attacks, and will set up a task force focused on maintaining cyber security and digital trust within Singapore, the minister said.

Teo, who is Minister-in-charge of Smart Nation and Cybersecurity, said: “Today, if you are alert, when you see a ‘+65’ and you know that it’s not a real local call but that it’s coming from overseas, you don’t answer it. But you find it very annoying.

“So, we are going to make available an option for people who do not expect to get any overseas calls in the first place to activate an option to totally block all overseas calls.”

The move cuts off a key communication tool for fraudsters as phone calls ranked among the top three methods scammers used to contact victims, according to the police’s mid-2023 scams and cybercrime statistics.

Fraudsters contacted victims through phone calls in 3,908 cases and via SMS in 920 cases, police reported.

But the change will not rule out scams carried out on communication services like WhatsApp – the platform of choice in the first half of 2023, according to the police.

The measure follows years of warnings to mobile phone users to be wary of calls with a “+65” prefix attached to the caller’s number.

“Speaking as a person with an elderly parent, I find this feature useful because I can then activate it for my parent’s mobile phone,” said Teo, adding that the feature will help vulnerable users from being tricked into picking up overseas scam calls.

The authorities also rolled out the ScamShield mobile app in 2020, which blocks incoming calls and messages against a list of known scam numbers. Since 2023, organisations which have not signed up with an Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) registry are also flagged to mobile phone users as “likely scam”.

New task force

Scams, system outages and other recent events have shaken the public’s trust in Singapore’s digital infrastructure, giving rise to a need for a newly commissioned task force to oversee matters of public confidence in the country’s digital services.

Dubbed the Taskforce on Resilience and Security of Digital Infrastructure and Services, the group comprises members from MCI, IMDA, the Smart Nation Group, Cyber Security Agency of Singapore and Government Technology Agency.

The task force will review security risks to Singapore’s digital services and recommend measures to improve cyber security, such as to introduce guidelines for service providers and users and the performance of vendors employed by the authorities.

It will look beyond critical information infrastructure like power plants and telecommunications services, Teo added.

MCI is also working with Google on improving anti-malware measures on Android devices from the likes of Samsung, Oppo and Google, to see how each device can filter out scams.

“We are working with them to improve the anti-malware measures to explore if the (device) can also serve as an additional layer of prevention,” she said, adding that Android phones account for more than 60% of the smartphones used here.

Malware attacks, which grant hackers control of victims’ devices when a virus-laden app is installed, were a weapon of choice for fraudsters in 2023.

The police reported more than 1,400 victims were duped by malware scams between January and August, with total losses amounting to at least S$20.6mil. – The Straits Times (Singapore)/Asia News Network

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