Robbed by phone calls: How I lost RM95,000

It was an ordinary day after work. I was having my evening nap as I was a bit under the weather when suddenly my home phone rang.

I answered the call. I heard “Nombor anda menyalahi undang- undang telekomunikasi dan akan diberhentikan, sila tekan 0.”

Unsuspecting, I pressed “0”. I heard the sound of a phone ringing at the other end, then a female voice spoke, saying she was from TM Pulau Pinang. She asked me what was wrong.

I told her what I heard. She then asked me for my MyKad number. Then she said my correct name (I suspect that they know a website on which to check your real name based on your MyKad), and said that there were three numbers registered under my name, all of which were reported by the public to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for spreading information on scams.

I was shocked, but she continued, saying that the three numbers had sent 15,000 SMSes to the public and that I had a RM5,000 debt.

I said I didn’t know anything about it and would not want to know about it. But she insisted that I make an online report to the Penang police headquarters, so I was diverted to the “police station”.

I hung up the phone, but it rang again. The person at the other end shouted, “Do not hang up, I am connecting you to the police officer!”

A person who claimed to be a Sergeant M answered me and took all my details. He told me that in order for me to continue with the report, I had to “isolate myself” by going to a secluded place and locking myself in a car.

He asked me for my phone number and asked me to google and see if the phone number he was calling from matched the Penang police headquarters. It matched, except that there was +881 as the prefix. When I googled, I found that it was a global mobile satellite number and figured that it was a common number for police stations to use. So I had some confidence that he was a legit police officer.

I went to my car and drove some way from my home. He then “interviewed” me and told me that he had cleared my name from the illegal numbers and had dealt with the debt with TM. Lastly, he said, would like to check my name with MCMC.

What shocked me was that MCMC had said that my name was involved in “illegal money laundering activities”. He shouted at me: “Are you involved? Because I caught the culprit [he gave a name, say Mr T], with more than other 200 other names, and your bank account has over RM1.4 million in it!”

Further, he said, “I myself have caught a person named T who is a mastermind of this scam.”

So I told him it was not me, I have my bank account with me with my card and I haven’t been to Penang for the past five years! So how could I have registered a phone number and a bank account there?

Then he asked me whether I had ever lost my MyKad and if I crossed off the photocopy of my MyKad whenever I applied for loans.

He asked me about all of my bank accounts and the amounts, including in my overseas account, and my job.

After further interrogation, he said he believed me and wanted to refer me to an inspector. But by then, it was 7pm. He said the inspector was no longer in the office and wanted to refer me to a sergeant major instead.

So this Sergeant Major Khai was the new officer that talked to me. He said he would call me with his number. Sure enough, he used the police logo for his profile picture.

He said because I was “involved” in the “Macau scam”, I was a suspect, and he believed that these things happened because of my carelessness in keeping my personal details. He said that other people could have gotten my information and used it to set up an illegal bank account under my name, and that they were now investigating the case to put an end to the scam.

I said, “Fine, I’ll go to the police station then.”

“Wait! Don’t go to the police,” he said. “We don’t know whether the police are involved as well. There are many people who are involved in Macau scams, including public servants, bank officers and ordinary people.”

That alarmed me a little bit. He said, this must be kept as a secret, not even your parents or your siblings or your friends should know because it is considered under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

He said if I leaked this, it would be very difficult for them to locate the Macau scam culprit, and that my family members and I would go to jail.

Foolishly, I agreed even though after the phone conversation I was contemplating going to the police.

Before the conversation ended, he asked me to “report” to him at the Penang police station every hour, adding however that because of the distance, it would be enough to report using WhatsApp. He said to never talk about money as the number could be accessed by several people.

The details I had to give for “reporting” were my full name, my MyKad number, my address and my job.

Foolishly, I complied and reported to him until bedtime. Before the end of the night, he asked me again to prepare all the documents needed for the “investigation” the day after. He asked me to bring my bank account books with me.

I said okay, thinking of my safety and that of my family.

The next morning, he was the first to greet me on WhatsApp. He asked me if I had brought my account book with me to work, and I said yes.

Then he said he would connect me to an inspector to help me with my case as he believed I was not guilty. But he added: “The police work using evidence, and so far the evidence does not favour you.”

I went to work as usual and around midday, he asked me to take leave as it was very important for me to deal with my case.

I took half-day leave to rest, then he said I should isolate myself again to get help from the inspector.

After I naively isolated myself, Khai told me exactly what I had to say to the inspector. He said it had to be said in a particular way, so he asked me to write down on a piece of paper exactly what I had to say.

He reiterated that for my case, I was still a suspect and the evidence did not favour me. He even gave me a police “case number”. So I said whatever he asked me to say. An “inspector” named Herman shouted at me: “All suspects are the same! All of you say you are not guilty. How can your bank card end up at the police station?”

Foolishly believing that it was indeed there, I said: “I don’t know, I haven’t been to Penang for five years and do not know how it ended up there.”

He said: “Bring two sets of clothes and come to the Penang police headquarters straight away!”

Then he told me to call Khai back.

“What have you done?” Khai asked me. “I have done my best to help you get out of this case, and you did not do it properly.”

He then said that he would personally approach another “inspector” called “Inspector Yong” who would be able to handle my case.

He said I must speak respectfully to this person as she was higher ranked than he was, and that this was my last chance.

This time, in the phone conversation, I could clearly hear him pleading with the inspector to handle my case. He also said he believed I was not guilty and was willing to risk his rank as collateral.

I was beginning to feel afraid.

My call was transferred to a person called Inspector Yong. She sounded like a very authoritative lady. She began interrogating me again, saying she had a police warrant to remand me at 1pm.

By then, I was panicking and did not know what to do.

I said: “Okay, I’ll go to the police station.”

She said: “No! if you go to the police station, you will affect the investigation.”

I felt that I had no choice. She continued, saying that if I wanted to cooperate with the investigation, I must agree to talk with the court to let them investigate my banks for “illegal” transactions.

For that, I would have to deposit all my money with some auditors and, after I was cleared, they would return my money. Otherwise, the police would come and remand me to be investigated for 45 days. After the court auditor checked all my accounts, she said, my status would be changed from a suspect to a victim.

Fearing the consequences, I blindly agreed, and she told me to recite via phone an oath that she had asked me to write earlier to what appeared to be the court judge.

Inspector Yong asked me to go to a bank, withdraw a sum of money and hand it over to someone in Perak.

I said: “How can I hand it over in Perak when I am far away?”

So she requested that the “judge” open a “temporary” bank account for me to deposit my money in Bank A. I promptly followed, depositing my money into an account she gave.

After that, she asked me to drink some water and rest. She asked when I would deposit the rest of the money. I said it would take a few days as I had to transfer money from my overseas account as well.

She then asked me to report to her every three hours, stating my full name, MyKad number, address and job. She stressed that this must be kept a secret from everyone as it was a police investigation for Macau scam and under the OSA. Again, I naively agreed.

I made six transactions in a span of seven days, using cash deposit machines and online transfers in three different banks.

Through it all, I was in a hurry to transfer my money to the said auditors with the hope of clearing my name as soon as possible.

Only after the last transaction did I notice that something was not right. She didn’t respond to my questions on when I could get my money back.

It then dawned on me: anyone could put a photo dressed as a police in a WhatsApp profile picture, anyone could claim to be from the police station, anyone could use any number to scam people.

I made a quick search online and sure enough, I found that Inspector Yong was involved in most of the reports!

I realised then that I had become a victim of a scam. I told myself to be strong and made a police report.

But by then, I was RM95,000 poorer.

Here are the morals of my story:

1. If you receive a call, SMS or email from anyone including those claiming to be from a telco, police or investigation team, tell them you have nothing to do with it and hang up.

The longer you listen to them, the more you will be convinced. In any case, after you have listened to what they say, they will threaten you to keep it a secret. Do the opposite. They will not know if you have told someone or not.

Tell anyone you know, especially your family members. They should be able to quickly recognise that it is a scam.

In my case, I told my family members after I realised it was a scam. But it was too late.

2. Tell the police. Do not be afraid because you are not guilty.

3. If they tell you your bank account is linked to a crime, go to the bank directly and check with them. I should have done this in the first place.

4. The scammers will try to make you believe that you are a suspect. Do not believe this. You are neither a suspect nor a victim.

5. The scammers will want you to withdraw money as discreetly as possible. In my case, I was told what to tell the bank if they asked the reason for withdrawing all my money. I was told: “Tell the bank that you want to renovate your house. You don’t know whether the bank officers are involved with the Macau scam as well.”

6. The scammer will call you and ask you to park your car in front of the bank and do the transactions there. While withdrawing your money, he or she will ask you not to hang up the phone. When I was doing this, I felt uneasy about it. Why did everything have to be a secret? I don’t know if there’s any enchantment or black magic involved too, but the experience was weird and uncomfortable. Strangely, I just followed whatever I was told to do in the name of secrecy.

7. They will keep asking you to “report” via WhatsApp every three to four hours. It is very uncomfortable, restricting and annoying. Report to the police straight away.

8. The story may vary from person to person, but it usually involves illegal bank accounts, drug deals, human trafficking, etc. When in doubt, go to the police.

9. All I felt during this period was that I wanted to end everything as soon as possible. I hastily transferred money to the given accounts without much thought. Remember, you don’t have to lose all your money. You can stop at any stage.

10. The scammer (such as Inspector Yong) is very authoritative and demanding. She calls you by your real name (that’s why you should never give your MyKad number to anyone) but this should not deter you. You should block her number and go directly to the police. I felt scared and very passive and submissive during the whole period because her voice was always loud and directive. But at times, she appeared kind and concerned about my life. This made me think that she was a real inspector.

11. Scammers are very manipulative. They abuse your personal life and your emotional and mental health and rob you of your finances.

12. From my experience, the scammers involve a network of people with different areas of expertise. They are educated and know how to manipulate you. In my case, they claimed to be telecommunication officers, police officers, judges and auditors. They even gave a “receipt” for almost every transaction I made, which made me believe that my money was stored safely with the auditors. It was not.

I asked myself, what if they did not return my money, but I feared more for my family’s safety.

Thinking back, they can only manipulate you using a phone. There is nothing they can do to you and your family. All they can do is intimidate you.

13. Scammers can be very controlling, asking you about what you want to do and what you want to buy. You will feel controlled. Hang up the phone and run to the police. Don’t be timid. Fight back.

14. Anyone can be a victim: doctors, teachers, civil servants, private employees. People well-versed with the law are less likely to be a victim because they know the law. Educate yourself about the law.

15. Do not panic, because then you will not be able to think properly. Tell someone about it.

16. Never transfer money to a stranger.

Adam Tan (not his real name) has lodged a police report on his case.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.