by Patricia Siswandjo on

For Madam Tan (not her real name), four years of hell started when she responded to a simple text message. She was hounded – receiving threatening text messages promising bodily harm, videos of burning buildings and photographs of her children, accompanied with chilling threats. All because she fell for a lie in an SMS.

Before that, she was plagued by financial troubles – her husband had recently become unemployed and her children hospitalised – so she fell for a text message that offered her help in the form of a quick, easy loan.

Madam Tan checked the accompanying company name and telephone number online and thought it looked legitimate.

No longer operating in Geylang or next to facilities like liquor stores and casinos, unlicensed moneylenders are now acquiring databases of mobile phone numbers to hound potential customers. The messages offer the usual loan shark come-ons – “100 per cent real lender” and “fast, easy” repayment options.

They used to only splash red paint on a victim’s door. Now, they’ve added threatening text messages and ominous photographs of a victim’s loved ones to their repertoire of harassment.

Too late, Madam Tan realised she had solicited loan sharks who charged exorbitant interest rates and implemented unreasonable, ever-changing terms.

Many unsympathetic to victims’ plight

Loan sharks get their name because they prey on the financially weak. This includes the elderly, low-income, minorities and those with a bad credit-rating. Most victims have little financial sense, and an increasing number are desperate for money out of legitimate concerns.

Billy Lee knows this well. The founder of Blessed Grace Social Services helps loan shark victims with debt counseling. Speaking to The Pride, he says: “Many people knowingly borrow from loan sharks. But in my experience, there is a growing number of those who unknowingly do so.

“In their desperation to pay for things like hospital bills, they end up falling for loan sharks’ lies,” he adds.

Image Source: Facebook / Channel NewsAsia

However, most netizens are unsympathetic to those who fall prey to loan sharks. Many on Facebook criticised Madam Tan for her “poor choices” – for getting married and having children.

“If the woman didn’t get married, didn’t have children, she would not be in financial distress, and not even be in a position where she might be tempted to take a loan from Whatsapp morons,” said one user. Another said: “If you are dumb, probably best not to take on expensive stuff. Like having kids, for example.”

But how can one foresee unemployment and money troubles a decade earlier and thus, stop oneself from getting married or having children?

Many comments also focused on Madam Tan’s expensive mobile phone. One such comment was: “Look at her iPhone X. You think she deserves help?” An iPhone X starts retailing at $1,300.

Lee stresses that such comments do not help loan shark victims and instead, pushes them further away from legitimate channels of help, like debt counselling.

Image Source: Shutterstock / Pornchai Soda

“Victims face intense harassment and can be ashamed at first to come in for debt counselling because unkind comments make them feel stressed and isolated. But, even if someone makes a bad decision, why don’t they deserve help?” he said.

Many think it’s Madam Tan’s fault for approaching loan sharks in the first place because they believe – wrongly – that she did so knowingly. “You know is a shark, in the first place, blame yourself,” said one. However, Madam Tan was unaware that the text she received was from a loan shark. She thought they were licensed moneylenders because they had a website.

Lee explained: “Loan sharks are getting a lot smarter. Now, they pretend to be legitimate moneylenders when contacting potential borrowers, setting up professional looking websites. Many people fall for this scam. By the time they realise it’s a loan shark, it’s too late.”

Loan sharks use names of registered moneylenders and create authentic-looking websites, agrees Steven Loh, another counsellor from Blessed Grace Social Services.

Below is an example of a fake website made to mimic a licensed moneylender. It has since been reported and removed.

Image Source: Blessed Grace Social Services

While most of us know that we should always spend within our means, the lowest of low-income Singaporean households earn less than their monthly expenditure. Some of them struggle to survive with their current income. Which explains why, for some, borrowing what appears to be quick and easy money is not just enticing but a necessity. So instead of judging victims for turning to loan sharks, we could, perhaps, consider the predicament they are in.

A cycle of bad decisions and poverty

Lee suggests: “Instead of criticising and shaming those who borrow money, we should examine what brought them to do so in the first place. Then, we can try to help them.”

For people in poverty, it’s more than just a shortage of money. It’s a tendency to continue making poor financial plans for the future, because they are so stressed and concerned about immediate financial worries. And poverty is closely linked to bad choices.

Rather than blame them for making such decisions, it is more constructive to understand that the mental stress of coping with day-to-day needs drives them to make bad choices that amplify and perpetuate their financial woes.

Speaking to Channel News Asia, Madam Tan confessed that even though she was at her wits’ end, she didn’t want to approach her family members because she didn’t want them to know about her financial situation.

Perhaps, instead, as friends, family and community members of someone struggling, we can find a way to reduce that daily stress.

A listening ear and a helping hand

Lee says: “Loan shark runners (those hired to harass victims) sometimes threaten a victim’s family members or neighbours. Because of this, criticising and shunning a victim is understandable. But, try being understanding, and helping them instead.”

He recommends turning them to debt counsellors like Blessed Grace Social Services where they can be put on debt management programmes. These organisations negotiate on behalf of those in debt to come up with an instalment plan so they can gradually repay their creditors over a reasonable period of time. Their counsellors also provide help in budgeting. Some counsellors, like Mr Lee, also have experience in dealing with loan sharks.

Image Source: The Pride

Lee also advises members of the public not to reply or return calls to unknown numbers. For those already ‘snared’ by loan sharks, he suggests that they change their phone numbers.

The public should also block and report the number as spam. They can also notify the police via the i-Witness portal or report loansharking activities anonymously through the X-Ah-Long hotline at 1800-924-5664.

In the end, loan shark victims are still people – people who may face tougher everyday challenges than the rest of us. They need help, not criticism.