Connexion: When scam victims get the blame

By Joachim Ng

Are you in the habit of victim blaming, that is, blaming the victim if he or she falls into the hands of a cheat? The victims are often blamed, and lately, even the elderly with aging brains have been chided for being naïve.

Ipoh, the headquarters for many scams, played host last month to a range of speakers who told newspaper reporters covering the events that the lack of awareness in crime prevention was shocking. Victims were blamed for being ignorant, naïve, and vulnerable.

Speakers offered the usual advice which you would have also heard from the police spokespersons at their regular news briefings: Don’t believe any scammer who tells you that you are in trouble with the law and must pay up to avoid going to jail. It is not in the police standard operating procedures to call you for money.

This advice has been trotted out month after month since well before the Covid pandemic started, but it has not reduced the number of jail-threat scam victims. Police still call it the Macao Scam—a riddle of sorts, as it doesn’t happen in Macao but here in Malaysia.

Why does advice to the elderly fail? Because it is victim blaming. Neither the police nor these victim-blamers want to concede the fact that any older folk who receive scam calls stand little chance of escaping the trap. It is because the relationship between a scammer and the intended victim is highly unequal, similar to the relationship between a lizard and a sleeping mosquito. The mosquito will be eaten, unless the lizard is chased away.

This is where the crime-prevention authorities are failing our grannies and grandpas. At their age, they are like sleeping mosquitoes as their brain speed has slowed. Scammers, on the other hand, are trained to snare their victims. 

You can’t teach a 70-year-old how to avoid being knocked out by a prized fighter. “Grandma, when the scammer throws a punch at your tummy, block it with your left hand. When he tries punching your head, duck and sidestep.” This kind of advice is simply a waste of time. And in that time, the scammers are snaring more and more victims.

During the last three months of 2020, scammers fleeced almost RM10 million from just six victims. These were the mighty big cases highlighted by the press. One of them was a 66-year-old retired teacher who had to borrow from relatives and friends to pay an exorbitant amount of RM1.8 million to stay out of jail for alleged money laundering. That’s a punch to the tummy of grandma.

Sometimes you get a death blow to the head. A 72-year-old granny lost her entire inheritance fortune of RM4.3 million when a scammer told her that the bank account in which she kept the money was under investigation and she was advised to transfer all the money to a new account in the same bank. Two months later, all that was left was RM14,000.

The problem with victim-blamers is that they ignore the law—not the law as stated in our Penal Code but the law of averages. Every salesman knows that by the law of averages if he makes 100 cold calls, he will achieve a 5% success rate. This means five people become prospects willing to buy.

The scammers know the law of averages very well, and they know that most people have taken note of the police advisory. So a syndicate will call 1,000 people a month. All they need is 50 victims.

These victims need society’s protection, but who exactly can protect them? The banks. Yes, the banks. They can stop this Macao Scam that should rightfully be called the Jail-Threat Scam.

You very rarely hear about such scams in Singapore. That’s because Singapore banks have a strong sense of social responsibility towards the community, especially towards the elderly. In Singapore if you transfer money repeatedly to a stranger account or bunch of stranger accounts, your transfers will trigger an artificial intelligence (AI) device to investigate. 

If some evidence is discovered that a scammer is at work, the victim will get a call—this time from a real bank officer who is trained in counselling. The officer will coax the victim into revealing everything. Within hours, the police will be hammering at the scammer’s door. 

In Malaysia, nobody has urged the banks to install AIs to stop the Macao Scam. The MPs don’t bother as they are busy with politics, and the banks will claim that they have done their bit for the elderly by painting some old folks homes. 

Never mind if granny is scammed of all her life savings. That’s her problem for being naïve. When will somebody tell the banks in Malaysia that unless they get involved in crime prevention, they are primarily self-serving institutions?

The other institution that can help stop this Macao Scam is the telco industry. But all the telco players are hands-off in not caring who makes what call masquerading as police officers, bank officers, postal officers, and tax officers. A scammer identifying himself as a police sergeant calls an elderly on his/her phone—is that itself not a serious crime? So what are the telcos doing to stop this? They don’t have surveillance AI? 



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