Last year was a bumper year for scammers, with the police reporting that, partially due to Covid-19 restrictions, online scams rose to a record high with $201m being cheated from victims.
The main culprit for this surge in numbers is a rise in e-commerce scams, which rose by 19.1% from 2019. But a significant number (822 to be exact) were internet love scams.
You might be thinking, “it’s 2021, who still falls for love scams today?” And I would have agreed with you, until I found out that a foreign domestic worker of a family I know fell victim to a love scam.
She (let’s call her Y) has been in Singapore for about a year and she helped to care for a pair of elderly grandparents. It wasn’t long after she joined the family that she started stealing money from the home as well as borrowing money from loan sharks
She was caught and after repeated questioning, the family realised that she was a victim of a love scam. She confessed that she had been trying to find money to pay an Indonesian man with whom she had been talking to on Facebook. He claimed to love her and told her he wanted to marry her after she returned to Indonesia.
Director of the Commercial Affairs Department David Chew told CNA that scammers make use of people’s “key weakness” – their emotions.
“They use our fear, our lust and our greed to make us do things that we would not do if we had just calmed ourselves down and actually looked inwards. Many times, in the heat of the moment, we do things that we, in retrospect, will regret,” he said.
“It’s important for us to have friends and family around us to see and spot the differences that we sometimes don’t see. It’s not cognitive, it’s something from the heart.”
With the National Crime Prevention Council, the police have set up anti-scam initiatives to warn the public about scams but stressed that family members play an important role in preventing “someone they know from falling victim to crime”.
Keeping our helpers safe
Hearing the story about the lovestruck helper got me thinking: FDWs care for the young and old members of our families. We may hire them, but they aren’t just employees – they live and eat with us, and should be treated as a part of the family.
How then can we protect our FDWs from being scammed, especially since they may be more vulnerable being away from home in a foreign land?
With our increased dependence on FDWs to help our families in Singapore, what can we do to ensure a safe environment for them?
Top police psychologist Jeffery Chin told Today that victims prone to falling prey to Internet love scams also tend to be very romantic – they believe that there is someone out there for them and that love will come quickly.
It is this quest for companionship, especially online, that makes them easy prey for scams.
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We sometimes forget that FDWs need love and belonging too.
Not all of them have the opportunity to meet others in their community. Now, especially with Covid-19 restrictions, a smartphone is an important lifeline to allow FDWs to use the Internet and social media for recreation and to stay connected with friends, families and the outside world.
But that in turn, also makes them vulnerable to false information and scams.
Add that vulnerability to the financial pressure that they have coming here to work, and you have a recipe for disaster.
It is no easy feat for FDWs to come into Singapore to work, with many incurring huge debts to placement agencies that often leave them with no salary for the first few months that they start work. And that lack of information can lead to stress and bad choices.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) casework manager Jaya Anil Kumar told CNA in a podcast: “There [should] be more transparency to allow foreign domestic workers to know the breakdown outlining itemised expenses as well as the terms for paying them.
“It would increase accountability. Many times, FDWs may find that they are paying many months of their salary to agents without exactly knowing what the breakdowns are. They know that two months goes to the Singapore agent.”
“But then they ask ‘why is it that four months, 6 months [later], I am still paying to agents back home? I am not getting any salary and my family back home is asking me for money. I have to put my kids to school and they keep messaging me, so I see a money lending shop and I borrow money.’”
Easy prey for scammers
When my friends questioned Y about her actions, she confessed that there was a FDW going around their neighbourhood offering to borrow money on other FDWs’ behalf.
This just illustrates how easy it is for FDWs here to fall prey to moneylending schemes and end up in a desperate spiral that pushes them to bad, even criminal decisions.
Worse, say psychologists, some victims have fallen for scams despite seeing anti-scam advisories, while others remain unconvinced even after concerned parties try to intervene.
When my friends tried to explain to Y that her online “lover” was just a con artist extorting money from her, she refused to believe them. She continued to borrow money and ended up getting herself and her Singaporean employers harassed by her creditors.
In the end, her employers had no choice but to report her and send her back to Indonesia.
While there are Settling-In-Programmes that FDWs have to go through to help them settle into Singapore, these aren’t enough. Employers should always help manage their FDW’s stress levels, which will build up over time – whether it is a result of loneliness, finances or other challenges.
After all, the best defence against scammers – love or otherwise – is always a concerned friend or family member. So who can vulnerable FDWs turn to for immediate help?
We should treat our helpers as part of the family and accord them the same advice we would give any relative who may be struggling with personal issues or financial debt.
A little bit of kindness and empathy would go a long way to allowing them to open up to employers with their problems.
If employers are uncomfortable with getting too personal too quickly, there are organisations like the Centre for Domestic Employees, Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST) that offer counselling and advice helplines.
Employers can also consider connecting FDWs who may be in debt distress with credit counsellors to help address their unsecured debt problem through counselling, education and facilitating debt repayment arrangements.
If we do not help our FDWs, like many other victims of scams, it is likely that they would fall prey to such con jobs again.
The same survey also found that recurring scam victims lacked “protective factors” such as knowledge of scam tactics, financial literacy and social support from friends and family.
Said Mr Seah Seng Choon, President of FAST: “Employers also have a part to play because it is important that FDWs understand the impact of taking up a loan and their inability to pay.
“It doesn’t just affect them but also the employers as they may get into difficulties in helping the FDWs in disentangling the debt that FDWs have.”