Connexion: When dishonesty spreads like the Omicron virus

By Joachim Ng

Last month a 61-year-old Teluk Intan man lost RM50,000 in a jail fear scam, and last December a 36-year-old woman in Hutan Melintang also lost RM50,000 in the same scam. Both victims were fooled by seemingly authoritative callers who accused them of financial wrongdoing and induced them to part with their savings to escape going to jail.

Also last month, two Penang women in their 60s lost RM242,500 and RM148,000 after scammers threatened them with arrest for alleged money-laundering and drug dealing. The same month, a retired doctor in Kuala Lumpur was duped of RM200,000 by a “Bank Negara official” and in Johor the previous month a businessman was conned of RM600,000 by a “bank officer” who accused him of owing money to the bank.

Seremban had four cases since December—a retiree got a call from “Ipoh district police HQ” and transferred an entire amount of RM100,000 that he had inherited from his father after being accused of fraudulently acquiring the cash, a lawyer was cleaned out of RM115,000 after she supplied her account numbers to a fake Bank Negara official, and the same ruse was used to cheat a bank officer of RM104,000.

On March 22, a bank manager residing in Seremban reported to the police that she lost RM605,000 of her savings to a team of scammers comprising an “insurance company employee,” a “police sergeant,” a “police inspector” and a “deputy public prosecutor” who told the victim that a warrant of arrest had been issued to detain her.

With the income tax filing season approaching, you can expect a call from an “income tax officer” accusing you of any number of tax offences and demanding that you transfer money to an “authorised account” or pack your clothes for jail time.

Old or young, man or woman, housewife or professional, if you get cornered by a scammer you’re a goner. The scammer will hypnotise you with his authoritative voice, the seeming credibility of his facts, and his threat to jail you if you do not comply instantly. Just listen to any taped scam conversation, and you will know that it is a pack of trained wolves hunting a deer. Scammers work in a team whereas you are alone. 

There are two main reasons why scams have been proliferating in Malaysia over the past 10 years. The first is that telcos have not invested in artificial intelligence networks to detect scammers while the call is in progress, and banks have similarly not done so to detect suspicious transactions. 

The second reason—the primary reason—is that our society has been degenerating over some decades and Malaysia is turning into an Omicron nation of dishonesty. Like the Omicron virus, once dishonesty becomes endemic there is no longer any physical distance between honesty and dishonesty. You will likely end up as a purveyor of dishonesty or a victim. With endemicity, you get infected with dishonesty more easily. 

The Omicron virus doesn’t just destroy health, it also destroys integrity. The month of January saw a flurry of news reports about doctors and workers in private clinics from Kedah to Johor selling vaccination certs without administering any jabs. And just as you can easily get the Omicron infection, company employees learned how to fake the COVID-19 saliva test kit results to show positive so they can enjoy paid sick leave.

Dishonesty is similarly prevalent in the government sector. Auditor-General Datuk Seri Nik Azman Nik Abdul Majid has revealed that non-compliance with financial management has resulted in issues of irregular payments amounting to RM1.299 billion, loss of public funds of RM11.45 million and a waste of RM8.87 million to the Government in 2020. 

Politicians, as always, take the lead with the country scoring a low 48 points out of 100 in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2021. The previous year, we were three points higher at 51. Emir Research says corruption has become systemic, structural and deep-rooted, and is the primary cause of our problems.

The standard cry of concerned NGOs is that we must start by fighting corruption at the top. But this is not Singapore. In Malaysia, the super crooks will engage the most expensive lawyers to ensure they stay out of jail. A practical way for us is to start at the bottom to weed out dishonesty. If we succeed in such grassroot action, we will have created a mass base that can move things at the top.

One simple example is eliminating corruption on the road. Make it easy to be honest. If you get pulled up in a traffic operation, you are inclined to pay the cop if he hints that he is open to it. You do it because you want the convenience and the big “discount” offered, whereas if you accept a summons you have to pay at traffic police HQ. Where is that place, can you find parking, and how long is the queue?

Make it easy to be honest by enabling summons to be paid at any police station or pondok. The police should also be given free island kiosk space in shopping malls that they can operate 360 days a year from 10am to 8pm to receive payments for summons. As Malaysians love to visit shopping malls, these payment kiosks will be kept busy. It takes little effort to connect all police computers to the same network.

Offer 50% discount for the first-time traffic offenders, 30% discount for second-time offenders, and 15% discount for third-time offenders. On the other hand, offer a reward to any cop who reports a bribe, and a similar reward to any motorist who has evidence of a bribe solicitation. These kiosks also provide opportunities for the police to broadcast their mission and connect with the public.

The pyramid of honesty must be constructed from the bottom, not from the top. How does this approach help fight the jail scam? Make it tough for scammers. The law now favours them because it does not require telcos and banks to adopt a whole-of-society approach to customer service. If you become meat for the wolves, the banks and telcos are not liable in any way. 

And yet telcos can easily embed AI machines into their networks to detect scam patterns such as certain keywords and phrases that scammers always use. An alert warning can quickly be sent to the intended victim, while at the same time the AI tracks the caller’s location and summons the police. 

If a scam call advances to the stage of money transfers, bank AIs can tell whether it is a likely scam if a bank customer transfers cash of RM10,000 or more on each of four occasions within days to an account or accounts previously unknown to the customer. The AI can halt further cash transfers and alert the police to investigate. If no scam is involved, police can inform the bank to allow the cash transfers to continue.

All it takes is a revision in the laws governing bank and telco operations. And what’s the penalty for scammers? If a victim dies of depression, it should be the death penalty imposed on everyone in that pack of wolves. There should be no abolishment of the death penalty, as we can’t go soft in the face of a crime epidemic.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo


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