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15 Jul 2024 23:09

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Half of Singapore’s e-commerce scams now happen on WhatsApp, Facebook, or Instagram

Nearly half the e-commerce scams reported in Singapore in 2023 were on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp.

Singapore authorities say Meta has not done enough to curb scams on its platforms.

Meta said it is testing new measures to curb malicious activity.

On a Facebook group for Filipino expatriates in Singapore, a post for secondhand electronics and furniture looked legitimate. So Joel inquired about a laptop and an iPhone 14, and was asked to pay a deposit of 800 Singapore dollars ($592). He asked for a mobile number to make the transfer, and that’s when the alarm bells began ringing, he said.

“I realized the account had a different name from the person I’d been messaging,” Joel, who asked to be identified by only his first name as he is wary of scamsters, told Rest of World. Suspicious, Joel insisted on paying cash on delivery. The user said they would accept a deposit of 100 Singapore dollars for the items that were priced at 1,250 Singapore dollars. Joel refused, and the user went quiet.

“I narrowly escaped becoming the victim of a scam, but I saw similar posts in multiple Facebook groups,” he said. “Facebook should do more to screen these posts and check whether they are legitimate,” he said, adding that he reported the user’s name and account to the platform many times. The account was deleted only after several weeks.

Singapore’s nearly 6 million residents are among the most frequently targeted by scammers — and many are not as fortunate as Joel. A record 46,563 scams were reported last year, an increase of nearly 50% from the previous year, according to the police. Some 652 million Singapore dollars ($480 million) were lost to scammers last year.

E-commerce scams — where goods and services advertised online are not delivered after the payment has been made — are the second-most common scams, after job scams, in Singapore, according to the police. Nearly 10,000 such cases were reported last year, twice the number from the previous year. Meta’s platforms — Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram — accounted for nearly half of them, according to the government.

More than 80% of Singapore’s population is on Facebook. Facebook Marketplace was ranked last in a government index of safety ratings for e-commerce platforms in the country. Amazon, Lazada, and Shopee topped the table, where six firms were ranked according to the “extent to which they have implemented measures that are critical to guard against scams.” These include verification of user identities against government-issued documentation, secure payment solutions, and loss remediation for users. Facebook Marketplace is “the only platform … that has not implemented the recommended safety features,” Singapore’s inter-ministry committee on scams said in a report.

In March this year, a junior minister criticized Meta for not installing recommended safeguards. Meta responded that scams are “complex” and that it has strict policies that prohibit malicious activity.

Meta supports the Singapore government’s efforts to address online scams, and continues to work closely with the police to tackle the issue, a spokesperson told Rest of World. “In addition to raising awareness around fraud and scams, we will be rolling out a few initiatives, including verification measures that we are testing for Facebook ads and Marketplace,” the spokesperson said.

Worldwide, financial fraud — including advance payment fraud — is growing as people embrace new technologies, with scammers stealing more than $1 trillion from victims last year, Interpol said in a report. Singapore is cracking down with legislation. The Online Criminal Harms Act took effect in February this year, with its directives to “counter scams and malicious cyber activities” taking effect in June.

The online services with the highest risk of e-commerce scams in Singapore include Facebook Marketplace, Facebook ads, and Facebook pages, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. It has asked service providers to implement user verification requirements and will assess measures to verify the identity of “risky sellers” on Facebook Marketplace between June 1 and November 30. “If the number of e-commerce scams reported on Marketplace does not drop significantly, MHA will require Facebook to verify the identity of all Marketplace sellers by 1 March 2025,” it said in a statement.

Anti-scam laws can have limited success in deterring criminals, Munira Mustaffa, executive director of security consultancy Chasseur Group, told Rest of World. “This is likely why Singapore policymakers are redirecting their efforts toward pressuring tech companies to comply with regulations and implement designs to create a more secure online environment,” she said. “However, these efforts are almost certainly under-resourced relative to the scale of the problem, [considering] the substantial financial resources that these companies could potentially allocate if they were either inclined or mandated to do so.”

In addition to raising awareness on scams, Meta is taking initiative to set up other verification measures for Facebook Marketplace. Facebook
Facebook removed some 631 million fake accounts worldwide in just the first quarter of 2024, its data showed. Fake accounts made up about 4% of its worldwide monthly active users in that period, it said. There was no data available for Singapore.

E-commerce firms in Singapore have issued advisories to users and introduced measures such as preventing users from sharing mobile numbers and e-mail addresses within the app, and holding payments in escrow until items are received. Authorities have also set up a scam alert hotline as well as a WhatsApp service to help residents verify suspicious messages, images, and videos.

Cross-border transactions present another challenge, Nydia Ngiow, managing director of advisory firm BowerGroupAsia, told Rest of World. “Even cybercrime laws are specific only to local jurisdictions, which may be insufficient to address the transnational nature of scams today,” she said. Still, “tech companies at times require a catalyst, i.e., legislation, before they initiate action against scams. Legislation can play a crucial role as a deterrent because of its clear signal of consequences and punishment.”

As the number of scams has risen, the Singapore police have taken the unusual step of asking e-commerce firms to deploy staff at their Anti-Scam Centre (ASC). With staff from the companies — as well as from banks and telecoms — working alongside police, they can review scam reports, quickly freeze bank accounts to prevent transfers, and suspend suspicious phone lines and user accounts, they said.

Since the start of the year, homegrown e-commerce firms Shopee and Carousell have deployed staff at the ASC “This has allowed the police to screen … scam accounts in real time, improve the turnaround time by platforms to take down these scam accounts or listings, and strengthen the working relationship between the police and the platforms,” law minister K. Shanmugam said in a written parliamentary response. Authorities are considering making such deployments from online platforms mandatory, he said.

The setup has worked well for Carousell. Earlier this year, the platform suspended the sale of tickets to Taylor Swift concerts in all six of its markets — Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan — for about two weeks, a spokesperson told Rest of World. “Our teammate at ASC received early indication that there was an increasing trend in scams related to the Eras Tour, and it was likely to increase closer to the tour dates,” the spokesperson said. Information provided by the police helped the company better assess the “unprecedented scale” of risk, the spokesperson added.

As for Joel, his narrow escape has made him skeptical of e-commerce platforms. He will trust only a site like Amazon from now on, he said. “I guess if it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.”

Source- Rest of World

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