Online scams push Singapore crime rate up 5.6 percent in 1H2018

Country's high internet and smartphone penetration likely fuelled the increase of online crime incidents, which included a 72.8 percent climb in e-commerce scams during the first half of 2018.

Singapore's crime rate climbed 3.2 percent in the first half of the year, fuelled largely by a spike in e-commerce scams and the country's high internet and smartphone adoption.

Some 16,460 cases were reported from January to June 2018, up from 15,949 the year before, according to latest figures from Singapore Police Force (SPF), which attributed the growth to the higher number of e-commerce, loan, and impersonation scams. These shot up by 72.8 percent to 1,823 reported cases, from 1,055 incidents in the same period last year.

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E-commerce scams, specifically, climbed 58 percent to 1,277 cases. Some S$930,000 were lost in such incidents, up 43.1 percent from the first half of 2017, with the largest amount cheated in a single case totalling S$50,000.

The police noted that the 80 percent of e-commerce scams occurred on online classifieds marketplace, Carousell, where such transactions often involved electronic items and tickets to events and attractions.

"With pervasive internet penetration and greater prevalence of smartphones in Singapore, more Singaporeans are going online," the law authority said. "This has likely contributed to the increase in online commercial crime cases. Online crimes are particularly challenging to solve because of the borderless nature of the internet."

SPF noted that a significant portion of such crimes were conducted remotely by foreign syndicates, which would continue to prey on potential victims. It pointed to the need to further educate the online community on mitigating such risks.

IT retail chains and convenience stores, for instance, now were required to notify customers buying Apple iTunes cards to read a document informing them of potential scams involving the use of such stored value cards.

The police also had been working with remittance agencies and banks to train frontline staff to detect customers who might be victims of a scam, helping them successfully intervene and preventing potential incidents.

In addition, such efforts resulted in a 18.6 percent drop in internet love scams, the first dip in five years, according to SPF. It added that the establishment of a Transnational Commercial Crime Task Force in October 2017, to investigate scams involving foreign crime syndicates, also helped foil such operations.

The police further credited the introduction of tools such as Carousell's CarouPay, launched in June 2018, as a positive step towards combating online scams. SPF noted that the online site saw a 136 percent increase in e-commerce scams during the first half of 2018, up from 432 the year before.

It said payment systems such as CarouPay, which functioned as an escrow system that released payments only after buyers acknowledged receipt of their purchased items, as a way to better protect online consumers against scams.

In a ZDNet report last November, Carousell said its fraud rate was 0.05 percent and it was tapping artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to combat fraud. The company had deployed TensorFlow and Google's Cloud Machine Learning engine to identify and flag potential fraud risk. For example, the software would be able to highlight an individual who sent out multiple requests to different Carousell users, asking them to leave the site's chat platform to communicate.