Published: 13 June 2023
1. A very good morning to Ms Minh-di-Tang, Ambassador of France to Singapore, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us this morning, for our inaugural Regional Anti-Scam Conference 2023.
2. We are extremely privileged to have here with us this morning, 34 representatives from 15 countries, all sharing the common desire to fight scams.
Importance of International Co-operation
3. According to the Global Anti Scam Alliance, around US$55.3 billion were lost to scams worldwide in 2021. This is a transnational problem – a transnational crime, where criminals act across borders. The reality is that international cooperation to deal with scams is not a choice – it is a necessity. No one country can do this alone. We must stand united together to disrupt scammers’ operations in order to protect our people.
(a) Scammers are typically part of organised criminal groups – they run sophisticated transnational operations which are well-resourced and extensive in their networks.
(b) The methods employed by these scam syndicates are brutal, and extend far beyond financial losses and emotional trauma. We have read in media articles and news reports, real-life cases of victims being lured and trafficked overseas, under the pretence of high paying jobs or even love, and forced to work for organised crime syndicates to scam other victims. Some of these victims have lost their lives.
(c) Apart from the vicious methods of these organised crime groups, these scammers are also adept at using technology to cover their tracks. With progress in technology, scam operations can easily be scaled up via online means – using computers and automation, scammers can make millions of scam phone calls, SMSes, Whatsapp and Telegram messages, every day, every second. No one is spared.
4. Given the organised and transnational nature of scams, and their massive scale, it is imperative that every Government’s effort must be complemented with strong partnerships and collaboration with international counterparts, to achieve maximum impact.
(a) Over the years, the Singapore Police Force (SPF), has worked closely with our foreign counterparts and partners such as the Royal Malaysia Police and INTERPOL, to exchange information and conduct joint operations and investigations against transnational scams.
(b) In 2022, the close collaboration between SPF and overseas law enforcement agencies led to the successful take-down of 13 scam syndicates comprising six job scam syndicates, three government officials impersonation scam syndicates, two phishing scam syndicates and two internet love scam syndicates. More than 70 persons based overseas, who were responsible for more than 280 scam cases, were arrested.
5. I shall now touch on three areas, where we can step up our collective efforts.
(a) First, we need to work together to strengthen operational processes, to enforce against scammers, and to recover scam proceeds.
i. In Singapore, we have set-up the Singapore Anti-Scam Command (ASC) in 2022, to consolidate expertise in scams across all the land units in the Police, and enhance our abilities to disrupt scammers’ operations and recover scam proceeds. A key component of the ASC is the co-location of staff from the major retail banks, to facilitate swift information sharing and fund tracing, and the freezing of bank accounts suspected to be used for scam operations. I thank the banks for working with us on this initiative to safeguard their customers’ monies, and I am glad that they are here with us today.
ii. But, there is only so much that one country can do. Once scam proceeds are transferred out of our borders, enforcement becomes extremely difficult.
1. If, however, every country has the equivalent of an Anti-Scam Command outfit, whereby prompt intervention efforts can be taken to quickly trace the flow of incoming scam proceeds, and swiftly freeze the bank accounts of the scammers, then our collective efforts to recovering the scam proceeds will be greatly enhanced.
2. Such outfits in each country can then serve as the counterpart for each country’s Anti-Scam Command, to facilitate swift sharing of information, cross-border tracing of funds, and the freezing of scam-tainted bank accounts. I am confident that this will greatly enhance our chances of recovery of scam proceeds.
3. And even if we cannot recover the scammed monies in full, we can make it as difficult as possible for scammers to carry out their scams. By freezing these bank accounts, we are depriving the scammers of the opportunity to utilise these scam proceeds to launder them, to circulate in the system, to continue to multiply their operations. So, we must intervene to stop them from getting hold of these scam proceeds. Coupled with other enforcement actions, such as the swift termination of scam-tainted phone lines, we can increase the operating costs and the difficulty levels for these scammers to conduct their operations, thereby diminishing their ability to scale up their operations and prevent them from scamming even more victims.
(b) Another way that we can work together is to establish international norms for protective measures against scams.
i. The fight against scams is a collective effort, and downstream enforcement, after the crime has been committed, is never sufficient. Everyone in the ecosystem, including telecommunications companies, online platforms, and financial institutions, just to name a few industry stakeholders, need to play their part to guard against scams, upstream. And in this regard, countries can work together to establish baseline standards for the different industry stakeholders, to encourage each functional stakeholder to play its proper part in the fight against scams.
ii. For example, this could include setting standards for the protection of telecommunications infrastructure that takes into account the threat of transnational scams. It could also include coming to a common understanding on the role of online platforms in ensuring a safe online environment for users.
iii. To give a local example, for such norm-setting, in 2021, the MHA had worked with industry stakeholders to revise the Technical Reference 76, or TR 76, on Guidelines for Electronic Commerce Transactions. TR76 provides e-retailers and online intermediaries such as e-commerce marketplaces, with additional guidelines for how to better secure e-commerce transactions from scams. These guidelines include encouraging e-retailors and online intermediaries to adopt measures that enhance merchant authenticity, improve transaction security and aid enforcement against scams.
iv. Can we do something similar at the international level, to identify measures that are critical in combating scams, and encourage online platforms to agree to these collective norms and implement these measures?
(c) Third, is about how we can share information with one another. As we all know, knowledge is power. The more we know about scams, the better we can fight them.
i. Scammers are always finding new ways to approach their victims. It is a business – and an extremely profitable one for scammers. We have seen locally in Singapore, that some scams take place on a small scale first – almost like undergoing rehearsals – before becoming a full-blown scam operation. In the same vein, a modus operandi that first takes root in one country, may soon be scaled up for implementation in another country. There may be some tweaks to the operational matters, to take into account country specificity, but there may be some underlying scam models. And if we are able to share this information with one another, we will be better able to recognise the types of scams that will potentially arise in any designated country, and we will be better equipped to deal with them when they happen. So, if countries share information on the new methods and tactics employed by the scammers, and commit to working together, we will stand a better chance at disrupting their operations and crippling their syndicates.
ii. Similarly, different countries could come up with effective strategies against a given scam type. If so, sharing such information could help other countries more quickly adapt their response to the scam type.
Raising Awareness on Technology-Enabled Scams
6. I have earlier mentioned how scammers have been abusing technology for their nefarious purposes. But technology, when utilised correctly, can be an important tool, in the fight against scams. Allow me to share some examples of how we have made use of technology, to enhance our abilities to combat scams.
(a) The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has been working with the banks to employ fraud surveillance systems, to facilitate timely detection and blocking of suspicious transactions.
(b) To alert the public to potential scam SMSes, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has put in place an SMS Sender ID Registry. This Registry enables businesses and organisations to register their names, so that scammers cannot misuse their names to scam their customers through SMSes. All non-registered senders are flagged as “Likely-SCAM”, to alert customers that the unverified sender of the message might be a scammer.
7. Moving forward, I see the following as key areas of focus.
(a) First, we need to keep a look-out, for technologies such as artificial intelligence and deepfakes. We have already seen overseas examples of bad actors making use of deepfake technology to create convincing clones – whether voice or videos of public figures, to spread disinformation. Such deepfake technologies can also be abused by scammers to perpetrate scams by cloning family, friends and other authority figures. As such, we need to constantly monitor this threat, work with research institutes, relevant government agencies, market players who themselves are at the forefront of these technologies, to study ways to counter them.
(b) Next, we all have to make it easier for the public to verify authenticity of the person who is contacting them. We need to provide the public with the assurance, that they would be able to verify the legitimacy of the other party whom they are communicating with. The SSIR, which I have mentioned earlier, is one such example. On this front, we have onboarded all Government agencies in Singapore onto the Registry, making them harder to spoof. Moving forward, we will consider measures that allow the verification of incoming calls from Government officials and also other authoritative institutions.
8. As we can see, there is a lot that we need to do as a global community to fight this war against scams. Today’s inaugural regional conference on scams is a demonstration of our resolve to move forward as a law enforcement community to fight this war. But we will need to partner international counterparts, norms setting agencies, as well as industry players, to be able to do this effectively.
9. Later this afternoon, my colleagues from the SPF, IMDA, MAS and the Attorney-General’s Chambers will share more on Singapore’s strategies to tackle scams. Over the next two days, our friends and counterparts from INTERPOL, France and the ASEAN countries will also share on their anti-scams strategies. I am certain that we can learn a lot from one another, to enhance our collective ability to combat scams.
10. Thank you for joining us today for the Regional Anti-Scam Conference 2023. Let’s press on together, and take the fight to the scammers. Thank you very much.