Since the beginning of the Movement Control Order (MCO), many Malaysians have become victims of frauds and scams. Some of the scams include face mask scam, PPE fraud, scam calls, EPF scam, investment scam, Pos Malaysia scam and more. Read these 7 types of COVID-19 scams you need to be aware of so that you will not become a scammer’s next victim.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we conduct our day to day, with many seeing significant changes to their routine as most people socialize, play and work indoors.
This shift - and higher dependency on technology - coupled with the uncertainty of the situation has invigorated predatory fraudsters to head online and take advantage of people’s vulnerability caused by financial and health stressors from the pandemic.
On top of that, the fear and desperation to stay safe from the virus has also led many to stock up on all necessary forms of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, as well as cleaning supplies - a paranoia that has created a fertile ground for fraudsters to thrive.
But crime isn’t only happening online, in some countries like the UK, as reported by BBC, it’s also happening on the ground as organising crimes are targeting vulnerable people at home and in the care sector.
Why have cybercrimes and scams been successful amid COVID-19?
The hike in COVID-19 themed phishing lures, high-risk fake domains and scams, KPMG states, is because of its simplicity. It also proves that cybercriminals are changing their modus operandi to instill fear and target individuals and businesses through different means.
“Right now, everyone is heavily reliant on their laptops or mobile phones to conduct their everyday needs such as online banking, shopping or donating to causes and charities. Criminals are not afraid to take advantage of that,” said Tan Kim Chuan, Head of Forensic at KPMG in Malaysia, in a statement.
To avoid unwanted cyber breach or financial loss, KPMG advises individuals and organizations to embed pragmatic remote-working security controls as immediate measures to deal with these threats.
The number of cybersecurity cases have increased by 82.5% (838 cases) during the Movement Control Order (MCO), from March 18 to April 7, compared to the same period in 2019, according to data by CyberSecurity Malaysia based on a report by The Star. Of this total, 18% (152 cases) involved local companies, while the rest were home users and others.
As Malaysia slowly weathers the COVID-19 storm, here are some of the most notable scams that have happened since the start of the MCO.
Types of COVID-19 scams
1. Online face mask scam, fraudulent sale of PPE, and fake drugs
The number of cybercrimes have increased during the MCO period. (Image source: The Star)
Predators have been taking advantage of an increasing demand in healthcare-related items by duping desperate and vulnerable buyers through many online scams.
The Star reported that two people in Penang lost RM41,920 in a scam when they tried purchasing 700 boxes of face masks online, but never got the masks despite being told they would receive it in three to seven days.
In both cases, the victims saw an advertisement on Facebook. "Since the demand for face masks is high, both decided to buy it online for their own use and also for their friends," officer in charge of Seberang Prai Utara district Assistant Commissioner Noorzainy Mohd Noor said in a statement. Noorzainy said both victims made transactions into an account given by the suspect in stages.
Similarly, an online trader who wanted to make a bulk purchase of face masks lost RM108,300 after being duped by a non-existent supplier, Bernama reported. As of April 22, the victim had not yet received the goods, and her attempts to contact the suspect had been unsuccessful. The 34-year-old victim made her order from a woman in Penang through WhatsApp.
But it doesn’t end there, a Chinese national was scammed into giving RM600,000 and her passport for face masks, The Star reported. Things turned ugly when the victim questioned the fraudster, named Zhang Zheng Wei, after he failed to deliver the mask on the promised date (February 9), on top of threatening to kill her if she took the matter public.
As of March, 393 fraud cases involving the sale of face masks were reported nationwide, with losses amounting to RM1.1 million, said Deputy Inspector-General of Police Datuk Mazlan Mansor as a guest on the Malaysia Hari Ini programme on TV3.
A newer report by the Malay Mail states that Kuala Lumpur police have recorded 87 cases of fraudulent face mask sales totalling more than RM2.5 million since January. Kuala Lumpur police chief Datuk Seri Mazlan Lazim told reporters that these “sellers” can often be found via social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and other online sales platforms as well as via chat apps such as WhatsApp and WeChat.
COVID-19 has also led to an increase in online sales of unregistered and fake drugs, according to a report by the Edge. The high demand for health and personal care products has provided cyber criminals the perfect opportunity to strike on vulnerable Malaysians, said Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.
“A total of 182 links to websites selling unregistered drugs for COVID-19 treatment have been filtered and blocked, while 556 notices were issued to e-commerce platforms to reduce the sale of unregistered products for the same purpose,” he said in a statement.
2. Bogus websites or social media posts
Anyone can create a website or post on social media - therefore it’s important to be extra cautious when surfing the internet. (Image source: Free Malaysia Today)
What may appear to be a heartwarming or harmless story on the surface, could just be a sham with deceptive motives and malicious intent. That’s exactly the case with a social media post that went viral, showing a Pos Malaysia delivery rider crying on the steps of a home after delivering a parcel during the pandemic.
It sparked an uproar on social media, with netizens demanding Pos Malaysia be held accountable for the situation and even asking them to give its staff a bonus for Hari Raya.
But a few days later Pos Malaysia debunked the case, and released a statement confirming that the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) had arrested a suspect who they believed was involved in the scheme, the Malay Mail reported.
If you would like to contribute to those affected by the pandemic, check out this comprehensive list of verified and legitimate Malaysian fundraisers that are supporting COVID-19 relief efforts, on Vulcan Post.
A hospital consultant in Kuantan lost RM63,465 from his savings account after sharing his personal banking account on a fake Bank Negara Malaysia website, the Edge reported.
The 60-year-old victim lost his money two days after he dealt with three men supposedly from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the PDRM.
The victim said the ‘officers’ were investigating him for failing to pay the income tax of a furniture company which was registered under his name.
Confused over the allegations, the victim was advised by a ‘Datuk’ to open a link on a website, supposedly from BNM, and fill up the information required for investigation purposes.
3. Investment scams
Get-rich-quick schemes are almost always fake because there’s no such thing as easy money!
Amanah Saham Nasional Bhd (ASNB) has urged Malaysians to be wary of a scam where the company’s logo is misused in a circulated message via Whatsapp. It's been reported by the Star that the scammer dupes the public to deposit funds into a bogus investment scheme, all while guaranteeing great returns of investment within a short period.
Similarly, the Securities Commission Malaysia (SC) has recently cautioned the public of individuals or entities that are entrapping them into investing in unauthorized digital asset exchanges (DAX) operating in Malaysia, following an increase in the number of queries and complaints from the public.
“Investors who deal with unlicensed or unauthorized entities or individuals are exposed to various risks, including fraud and money laundering, and may not have access to legal recourse in the event of a dispute. The SC reminds investors to only trade with Recognized Market Operators (RMOs) that are registered and authorised by the SC,” they said in a statement.
Keep track of the situation by checking out the 12 companies operating without SC’s licence or authorization under its watch-list or Investor Alert. There are currently only three registered RMOs for DAX, namely Luno Malaysia Sdn Bhd, SINEGY Technologies (M) Sdn Bhd and Tokenize Technology (M) Sdn Bhd.
4. Immunisation scam and fake COVID-19 tests
The government has confirmed that it has never appointed any agency to carry out house to house immunization in the fight against COVID-19, according to a report by Bernama.
In a statement, the National Security Council advised the public to be cautious of these dangerous tactics by fraudsters and irresponsible parties.
“Do not allow anyone to enter your home for that purpose (immunization)," they said in a statement.
On a different but slightly similar note, Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob urged the public at a press conference to avoid purchasing or obtaining fake COVID-19 test reports as it will endanger themselves and others.
Suspects in connection with a syndicate selling such fake documents have been arrested, but the public were urged to remain vigilant.
5. Fake system tests
The central bank released a statement on social media to inform the public that they have not been selecting random people to beta test their app or system during the pandemic.
“Regardless of platform—online, phone call, sms, whatsapp etc—whenever you *have* to give personal info including banking details & password/PIN/TAC number—THAT is a SCAM. Stop before you lose your money,” according to the tweet from BNM.
BNM does not select random people to beta test our app or system.
Regardless of platform—online, phone call, sms, whatsapp etc—whenever you *have* to give personal info incl banking details & password/PIN/TAC number—THAT is a SCAM.
Stop before you lose your money pic.twitter.com/g9qInFCfOJ
— Bank Negara Malaysia (@BNM_official) April 14, 2020
6. Fake government aid texts
The Inland Revenue Board (LHDN) reminded citizens not to be fooled by scammers sending text messages claiming they are qualified for the Bantuan Prihatin Nasional, a government initiative to aid citizens affected by COVID-19.
In a Facebook post, the government agency said it will only send text messages from the numbers 62000 or 63833, emphasizing they would never request for personal details such as full names and banking information through text messages.
They also shared an example of a genuine text message notifying recipients if they qualify for BPN.
BPN recipients will be notified through emails from the address "email@example.com" and no further action is required from users who have received the email.
The fake text message requires recipients to reply with their bank details, and also promised payment credited within 24 hours.
7. Fraudulent withdrawal of Employee Provident Fund
In March, police opened 393 investigation papers (IPs) that incurred a total loss of RM3 million, these IPs involved online sales of face masks and fraudulent withdrawals of Employees Provident Fund (EPF) savings, according to a report by the New Straits Times.
This was off the heels of an announcement by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin which allowed EPF contributors below the age of 55 to withdraw from their Account 2 as part of the i-Lestari Withdrawal facility, a government initiative to aid citizens affected by COVID-19.
“Scammers started making various ‘offers’ on social media platforms when the government had announced to the public that they can withdraw their EPF savings,” said Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob at a press conference.
“The scammers tricked victims into surrendering their identification cards and bank account details on the pretext of assisting them to withdraw their EPF savings. I would like to urge the public to please be careful. Do not believe everything you read on social media. If it involves EPF, please contact the respective organisations for clarification on the procedures,” he added.
What other types of scams in Malaysia should I be aware of?
Even before COVID-19, Malaysians were known to be gullible when it came to the internet. In a survey by Telenor Group which included countries like India, Singapore and Thailand, Malaysians were found to be the most vulnerable to internet scams.
We dive deep into other types of scams to be wary of in Malaysia in this piece - especially for millennials, those aged 30 and below who are considered most susceptible to online fraud, according to findings from the National Consumer Complaints Centre (NCCC).
But here’s a quick summary of the most common scams in Malaysia even before COVID-19, that you need to be aware of so you don’t become a victim and lose your money!
1. Illegal money lenders who claim to be ‘licensed’
These scammers include people or companies who illegally engage in money lending activities using fake licences purportedly issued by BNM.
Remember that if you are looking for a personal loan or financing alternatives, you are not required to pay any ‘deposit’ or ‘down payment’ in order to get the loan approved. By the way, if you are looking for personal loan options, CompareHero.my offers free comparison and application service for both personal loans and credit cards.
2. The EPF scam syndicate
Don’t trust individuals or corporations claiming to offer you access to quick cash via early withdrawals from your EPF fund. These EPF scam syndicates will then charge you a fee ranging from 30% to 60% in commission from the withdrawn amount.
The syndicate uses social media accounts, alongside the EPF logo to dupe victims and those desperate for cash. They also send false messages through social media, short messaging service (SMS) and WhatsApp.
Besides that EPF has also called out false SMS messages sent to EPF contributors, claiming their EPF account will be blocked unless they contact the number provided.
All official messages from EPF will display a five-digit short code as sender identification (ID), and the messages will not be sent to members from a personal mobile number.
3. The travel package scam
These cheap travel package scams usually appear on social media platforms. The prices will be unbelievably cheap - for instance, a package priced at RM200-RM250 for three nights. Unfortunately, the “agent” will usually disappear after the money has been deposited into the account.
Other infamous scams are the Umrah and Hajj packages. As a general rule of thumb, any Umrah package lower than RM5,000 is a red flag as legit packages usually stretch for 12 to 14 days, making it illogical for agents to offer packages priced lower than that amount and still be profitable. As for Hajj packages, it is advisable to go through Tabung Haji to avoid the potential of being scammed.
For legitimate travel deals, the MATTA (Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents) travel fair is a good source which happens twice a year (might not happen this year because of the virus!) - travel agents there have been screened by MATTA.
You can also check with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia to verify if the travel agent you are engaging is licensed.
4. The travel visa scam
One of the most popular and frequent visa scams is the Australian visa scam. The Australian Department of Home Affairs warns Malaysians to be cautious of false claims that Australian visas are allegedly for sale.
There are also fake facilitators who organise visas and flights to Australia for people to undertake paid work (such as fruit picking).
Malaysians who work in Australia and have breached their visa conditions, may be detained and removed. If you are aware of, or suspect, a scam in relation to Australian visas, please inform the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. The land scam
Cases of forged land titles are quite common in Malaysia. Victims will realize they’ve been duped after discovering that the land title is under another person’s name despite having paid for the purchase of the land.
A few years ago, more than 10 victims had been duped into buying Malay reserve land at an unbelievably cheap price (RM60,000), but it turned out to be a scam because they were eventually ghosted by the company after a long period of silence, the Malay Mail reported. According to the report, this deceitful property company has scammed over 100 buyers.
Last year, eight victims realized they had been cheated of more than RM300,000 over a land scam when they found out that the land was occupied by others and the signed documents were fake, according to a report in The Star.
Some tips we can offer to keep yourself protected when shopping for property or land:
- Make sure there is a black and white for everything.
- Appoint a lawyer to protect your rights and interests, especially if you are not sure of the procedures in purchasing land or property. Don’t depend on the lawyers provided by the seller because they won’t necessarily protect your rights and interest fully.
- Make sure the lot of land you want to purchase has an individual grant, don’t just fall for the trick of “site visit”. Insist on seeing a copy of the individual grant then get the grant checked at the land registry.
- Check the zone which the land is in. For example, if you purchased a land with the intent to build a house make sure its under a residential zone. Similarly, you won’t be allowed to build houses in industrial zones.
- DON’T put down your signature on any agreement or document before reading it thoroughly or have a lawyer explain it to you.
- DON'T pay for any deposit before making the necessary checks and having it in black and white.
- DON'T get pressured into agreeing - the individual or agent may try to create a sense of urgency especially if you have fears of losing the chance of owning the land. But resist this, and insist on going through the proper process.
6. The lottery scam
Like most other scams, this scam usually involves an individual or entity who will insist you deposit or transfer money to ‘receive’ the reward. And sadly, vulnerable figures like senior citizens, tend to be their easy targets.
Last year, a 75-year-old Ipoh woman lost nearly all of her savings (RM38,000) due to “winning a lottery ticket,” only to be ghosted by the scammers who approached her, according to a report by The Star. “After I handed over the money, they asked me to make copies of my identity card in Jalan Sultan Iskandar. When I arrived at one of the shops, I realized they had fled,” she said.
A few years back a 70-year-old man lost RM120,000 after he was tricked with a lottery scam, according to The Star. The victim had just left a Tabung Haji building.
The common thread for both scam cases and most others, according to the police, is that the scammers would work in pairs – a foreigner and a local – and convince the victims to help them claim a lottery prize.
7. The bank impersonator scam Malaysia
If you received a phone call claiming to be a bank officer who needs to verify your credit or debit card, hang up straight away. The callers will usually identify themselves as BNM representatives or a Bank employee.
What usually happens with these scammers?
- They’ll tell their potential victims that their identification has been compromised or their card has been used.
- The victims may be required to deposit a sum of cash into an account as a guarantee for an investigation and as a way to ‘verify their identification.’
- Potential victims will also be asked for sensitive information such as their card number, full name, I/C number and the Card Verification Value (CVV) number.
- Scammers will provide a number to call where a fake officer will greet the victims and ask for information relating to the victim’s banking and credit card accounts.
- The fraudster would then instruct the victim to transfer money to a third-party account on the pretext of safeguarding the victim’s money as well as for investigation purposes.
NEVER give out any of your personal or banking information over the phone. Banks or BNM representatives will NEVER request for such sensitive information through phone calls, SMS or even e-mail. If you fear any compromise to your account, call your bank directly or go in person to a bank branch.
8. Casanova (African) scam
Women make up the majority of victims of African scams, The Star reports. From January to October 2019, 1,070 African scam cases out of a total of 1,303 cases involved women, according to Former Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh.
Nigerian men are usually the reported transgressors, who upon entering Malaysia as students in local private colleges, prey on vulnerable women.
Here are some telltale signs of a typical African scam:
- Men who befriend female victims through social media and then woos them into a “relationship”.
- Communication will usually be restricted to calls, e-mails or instant messages only. They will avoid meeting you in person, or via video communication.
- Scammers will tell victims they have sent cash or expensive gifts but it is stuck with the Customs Department, Immigration or a bank.
- An individual claiming to be an authority will contact victims and ask for money to be banked into their personal bank account before the cash or gifts can be released to them. Not sure of the authenticity of an account? The PDRM has developed a portal to allow the public to check on mule accounts.
- The “authority” will usually ask the victims for several collateral payments into their personal account before disappearing and being uncontactable; victims will never receive the items or cash.
9. Investments scams
Though it can be tempting to get a hefty return of your money in a short span of time, reality is that’s never quite possible. Scammers use this tactic to prey on gullible Malaysians who may want to make a quick buck for whatever the reason.
An individual posing as police or bank officers will contact the victim and inform them that they are wanted for criminal offences such as money laundering. The scare tactic is intended to force the desperate and fearful victim to transfer money into the fraudsters’ account to erase their records immediately. Call BNM and don’t dial any of the given numbers. One of the most rampant cases in Malaysia, a total of 1,911 Macau scams were recorded from January to October 2019.
This week, a 90-year-old retiree lost RM3.83 million after the victim was believed to have been duped by a Macau scam syndicate, the NST reports.
In March, two individuals - a female health officer and an unemployed man - were cheated of RM71,600 in two separate cases and believed to be victims of Macau Scam syndicate members as well, the NST reports.
Mecca investment scam
Also known as Mecca Fund Global, syndicates will lure potential victims into a “Shariah-compliant” investment in Mecca, promising profits of up to 360% in a year (sounds crazy and impossible!)
Chicago Bond Scam
Operating under the name “Federal Reserve Chicago Bond,” it promises very high returns on investments. Over 7,000 victims have reported losses amounting to a total of RM90 million.
The job offer scam
Are you looking for a job? Be wary of high-paying jobs, especially if it is through social media.
In the past, victims were duped into being recruited to carry out Macau scams. The victims were promised salaries between RM5,000-RM7,000 via WeChat, but were told to meet the prospective employer at a coffee shop. “Nobody conducts job interviews for such high-paying jobs in coffee shops,” Federal Commercial Crimes Investigations Department deputy director Senior Asst Comm Mohd Sakri Arifin said in the report.
He also shared that the recruits were trained to impersonate police, BNM and Customs Department officers.
10. The work-from-home scam
Very relevant with the current circumstances, there are many fake job postings online. A big red flag is when you are asked to make a payment first, before getting the project you requested. These types of work scams will not advertise the upfront payment needed. Essentially this scam, like most others, starts with a request for payment upfront.
Final thoughts? Prevention is better than cure
Scammers and fraudsters will always exist in society regardless of the time and era. Though the advent of technology has made information and resources more accessible to the masses, it’s also a double-edged sword in a sense that, now more people could potentially access your private details in just a few clicks.
To avoid the unfortunate circumstances of financial loss and data breach, we too, must play our own part by having a higher sense of accountability and responsibility. We need to be more mindful of how we behave online and offline. Sometimes, this requires us to think five steps ahead.
Remember that though we can’t really stop scammers from hacking and stealing information, we can try, as hard as possible, to prevent ourselves from unnecessarily giving away precious information.