Wising up to financial scams
Tan Jee Yee 
Every year, we read news or hear stories about financial and bank-related scams, yet there seems to be no end to people falling for them –

IT was Saturday, the 23rd of December, which went on like most Saturdays for 53-year old Chen (not his real name). The factory manager was working on some accounts when he received a call on his cellphone. The number wasn’t one he recognised, but calls from unknown numbers are common in his job.

The lady on the phone told him, in Mandarin, that she was calling from a local bank, and that his credit card recorded a transaction of almost RM5,000 in a jewellery store at klia2. Chen holds a credit card from that bank, and immediately began to panic. He has heard of credit card cloning incidents before.

“Someone has stolen your card details and is abusing it,” she told him. “You need to make a report to Bank Negara.” She gave him a number to call, and without hesitating he dialled the number.

The “Bank Negara” operative was strict, but efficient. He asked Chen for his account details so that he could freeze it, but in order to reimburse the amount that was allegedly charged to Chen’s credit card, he would need to transfer his money to a Bank Negara Malaysia-controlled account, so that an investigation could be made.

He was given two account numbers, and instructed to go to the nearest ATM to transfer the money. Because this involved a credit card cloning syndicate, Chen was instructed to keep the transaction secret. He had to do the transfer within the hour as well, if he intended to regain the RM5,000 that was charged.

Chen was ready to leave the factory for the bank when he ran into a colleague, who noticed his distress. After explaining the situation, he was told it was a scam. He would have fallen for it, if his colleague wasn’t so informed.

“Come to think of it, they called me on a Saturday on purpose, when the banks are closed. I guess I was really, really lucky,” he says.


Ever evolving

Incidents like Chen’s are common these days. You would’ve likely heard or read about something similar – stories of individuals contacted by scammers masquerading as authorities, duping them into paying thousands.

Some still continue to make headlines. In October last year, there was a report of a 53-year-old accountant who lost a whopping RM510,000 to a phone scam syndicate posing as Bank Negara – not unlike the scheme pulled on Chen.

The schemes keep evolving. Last December, the police released a statement saying that the infamous “Macau Scam” syndicate, believed to be the main perpetrators of the recent spate of financial scams, have started using the name of Pos Malaysia to dupe its victims.

Masquerading as postal officers, the scammers would call unknowing victims claiming that they’re withholding a parcel which can only be released if the victim provides them with a copy of their identity card and make a payment into a bank account.

More terrifying are the increasingly elaborate, complex scams with multiple “actors” which target specific individuals. It’s not uncommon for scammers to accurately recite the bank account information of their victims, having somehow gained access to their private information.

The storyline is still the same, but the actors are now different, says Fong

Yet, such scams typically boil down to similar tactics and methods. “The storyline is still the same, but the actors are now different,” says Fong Choong Fook, an IT security consultant and executive director of cybersecurity firm LE Global Services.

He says even the old Nigerian scams may have evolved, but still operate through the same concept. “It used to be about princes and sudden wealth and fortunes. Now, Nigerian scams may involve scammers pretending to be real lawyers, working in real law firms.”


Why we fall for it

As to why people still continuously fall for such scams, Fong posits that lack of awareness is an issue. “Usually, when you get scared and start panicking, you lose your common sense. These scams work by creating fear and panic, which clouds your judgement. That is how they manipulate you,” he says.

Being cold-called with claims that you’re involved in some sort of crime is already more than enough to strike anxiety and panic into most of us.

Fong says these scams typically try to isolate the victims and also give things a sense of urgency. “The victim will be told to never talk to anyone, and finish the task within an hour.”

Awareness of how these scams work can certainly help mitigate the fear and help keep us clear-headed, but fear isn’t the only emotion which scammers exploit. Fong says “greed” is often part of the scammer’s repertoire.

Greed-related scams often involve scammers telling victims that they are the winner of some sort of prize or cash prize, but due to certain circumstances, can only be released to the victim after they paid a certain fee. Some of them can get even more complex than that.

Fong’s organisation has, as part of an experiment, put a car up on sale on a local online second-hand marketplace. Scammers would offer to buy the car at a higher price than what seller has listed, but won’t be able to purchase the car until the seller pays an upfront fee to an agent of some kind.

“Common sense dictates that if you want to sell something, you don’t have to pay the buyer. If the buyer wants you to pay before he can purchase your item, it’s better to forget about it,” Fong says.

Scammers also prey on the lonely, leading to somewhat widespread occurrences of love scams in the country. Last year, the police revealed that a total of 2,497 love scams were recorded in 2016, amounting to nearly RM100 mil in losses.

Statistics from the police would indicate that the number of cases had increased yearly. In 2014, a total of 1,026 love scam cases were reported. A year later, the number had gone up to 1,841.

Love scams typically involve victims being duped into a fake relationship with someone else, usually through online channels like social media or messaging apps.

The scammer would usually play along with the relationship until a certain point, by which he or she would ask for money in pretence of being in trouble or wanting to gift the victim their inheritance, but requiring some payment beforehand.


Identification and avoidance

Safeguarding yourself against such scams require foreknowledge and awareness of scammers and their modus operandi. Fong says most financial scams will fall apart once you know of three important aspects.

Firstly, Bank Negara will never directly contact a person for whatever reason. This includes calls, messages, SMS and emails, even the ones that feature Bank Negara’s logo. Similarly, banks will never contact a person asking for personal information.

Secondly, for scams masquerading as the police, Fong says that the police will never contact you over the phone if you’re discovered to be part of a syndicate or crime. “If the case is serious, you won’t be receiving a call; instead, you will find a police car parked right in front of your house,” he says.

Thirdly, if a credit company detected there is a fraudulent card under your name and they’ve verified that you didn’t make the transaction, you don’t have to pay a single cent. “Credit card companies have insurance coverage. If someone else uses your card and it’s not authorised by you, you don’t have to pay.

“As long as people understand these three points, no matter who calls them and how the scam plays out, no matter how they change the role, the scheme will fall apart,” he adds.

There are other tell-tale signs that the call is a scam. Scammers would often insist that the victim to not speak to another person and to complete their task quickly. As we’ve mentioned earlier, people asking for upfront payment before buying your item or offering favours are all red flags to pay attention to.

Amirudin says other tell-tale signs include scammers who call under the pretext of being in a local organisation, but speaks in a foreign accent

CyberSecurity Malaysia CEO Datuk Amirudin Abdul Wahab says other tell-tale signs include scammers who call under the pretext of being in a local organisation, but speaks in a foreign accent.

Banks that you don’t have an account with calling you about account issues are also scams, Amirudin says. And even if you do have an account with them, banks will never ask its customers to transfer its money to another account for whatever reason.


What if you fall?

What should one do when they inadvertently find themselves a victim of such scams? Amirudin says that the immediate thing to do is make a report to the relevant authorities, the police being a priority.

If the scam is conducted over the internet, the victim can also bring the police report to CyberSecurity Malaysia, as the agency works closely with the police in solving such cases.

“The faster you alert the authorities, the better. We can try and recover as much as possible,” he says.

However, one will have to accept that, for a large majority of such scams, the money is usually unrecoverable. Fong notes that because these people are anonymous and may be operating out of the country, there’s little to no way to trace them.

“If you have already transferred the money to them [the scammers], other than making a police report and adding yourself to the statistics, there’s nothing much you can do,” he says.

Amirudin says these scammers often operate using mule accounts, which makes it really hard to track and arrest the criminals. “These are the scammers’ bread and butter. They will always find ways to get money from you.”

As such, in the case of scams, prevention is certainly better than cure. Yet, even if you’ve somehow become a victim, do not lose hope.

Amirudin asserts that it’s equally important to report to the authorities. “If the awareness education aspect is preventive, reporting to us [the authorities] is the responsive measure,” he says.

The cyber side

THE downside to being an increasingly connected and digital country is that we’re more exposed to threats.

“Generally, we can say that online frauds – including financial and bank scams – are considered ‘trending incidents’ in Malaysia. It is a concern,” says CyberSecurity Malaysia CEO Datuk Amirudin Abdul Wahab.

When in doubt, always verify the issue at the source. Victims can contact the authorities for help if they do fall victim – CyberSecurity Malaysia

The number of online financial scams is growing at a worrying pace. Last year, there were 7,962 cases of cybercrime that were reported to CyberSecurity Malaysia, out of which 3,821 are cases involving fraud.

A total of 567 of these cases were identified as financial or bank-related scams. “For the past five to six years, almost 50% of all reported cases are frauds or scams,” Amirudin says.

Online scammers similarly prey on the fear and greed of people, but can use more effective methods in projecting a sense of genuineness. Email scams may, for instance, feature logos from the organisations they are masquerading, while some may link victims to websites that are impeccably similar to official websites but are, in fact, fraudulent ones.

A general rule of thumb is to never click any links on an email from unknown and untrusted sources. Some of these fake websites may have web addresses that look similar but are inaccurate upon inspection.

“If you’re not sure about the website, it’s better to contact the bank directly,” Amirudin says.

He provides the following steps to educate and safeguard yourself against online financial scams:

1)  When you receive an SMS or email saying you have won something, always verify it with the company named in the SMS or email. Contact the company in Malaysia and not the number given to you in the SMS or in the email.

2)  If the message cannot be verified, ignore or delete it. Do not forward the SMS or email to others as this serves to further propagate the scam.

3)  You should never provide your bank details, such as account number, ATM card number or CVV number to a third party, even in your police report.

4)  Do not open a bank account for a third party.

5)  If you are asked to call a number to verify your gift and the person on the other end claims to be Malaysian but has a foreign accent, be suspicious. However, users are advised to refrain from communicating with the scammers.

6)  Always pay attention to the caution alerts posted on your bank’s websites, notices placed at ATMs and banks.

7)  Do not respond to text messages or emails from anyone requesting for private information such as their internet banking’s username, password or TAC number, even if the request comes from your bank.

8)  Do not reveal your internet username or password to anyone even if they claim to be from the bank.

9)  Do not register any third party mobile number at your bank’s ATMs for the issuance of TAC. Only register your own mobile phone number so that the TAC is sent to you.

10) Never allow a third party to use your ATM card or have access to your PIN.

11) Always be careful when making online transactions, especially at unsecured places like cyber cafes, or at public WiFi.

Amirudin insists those who express concern over online scams or end up falling victim to one to contact CyberSecurity Malaysia at its hotline number 1-300-88-2999 or email to for help.

Alternately, smartphone users can download the Cyber999 app on the iOS and Android to make a report. 

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 270.