SINGAPORE — After six months of trying to repay banks, lenders and creditors, Christine (pseudonym) has finally filed for bankruptcy over a huge debt. The 37-year-old Malaysian nurse working in Singapore is the victim of a butcher shop scam.
This hybrid of romance and investment scams sees fraudsters pretending to be a love interest to scam unsuspecting partners.
With a total debt of $270,000 and no recourse, Christine attended a court hearing on Thursday (February 17) to declare bankruptcy.
“If possible, I wouldn’t want to declare bankruptcy, but it’s a better option for me now,” Christine, from Penang, Malaysia, said in tears over the phone.
Having been separated from her family in Malaysia due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, loneliness drove her to seek the company of a mysterious stranger who sent her a direct message on Instagram.
The stranger claimed to be a 34-year-old Shanghainese interior designer based in Vancouver, Canada.
A friendship quickly formed and they were soon talking to each other daily via text messages and voice calls.
He seemed pretty legit, sharing photos and videos of his daily life – whether it was pictures of his meals or of him skiing while on vacation.
“He kept telling me ‘why can’t you find a partner, you don’t want to be stuck alone in a retirement home with no family'”, says Christine.
“I just wanted to stay friends with him because he was a free thinker…but when he caved and said he would follow me to church, that’s when I caved too.”
Three weeks into the conversation, he brought up investments.
She started small and ended up investing US$5,000 (S$6,700) in the first month.
In the midst of it all, she had lost $30,000 in a separate loan scam.
Her new love, who comforted her through the loss, suggested she could recoup the $30,000 “pretty easily,” if she invested in her platform.
He even paid $10,000 into her account to convince her.
He trained her further, promising to fly out of Vancouver in October, to arrive in time for heart surgery she was to undergo.
She injected around $150,000, borrowed through bank loans, to keep the investments going. He also helped her buy and sell stocks.
“When I saw the profits hit the target of $30,000, I wanted to pull out because it was very stressful to keep borrowing money and earning enough to pay it back with interest,” a- she declared.
“I even told him that I wanted to break up,” she said.
But the scammer threatened to kill himself. “He said to me, ‘Why are you leaving me? We’ve been through all this, we’re still a long way from our future.'”
He also offered to quit his job and move to Singapore, and get a permanent resident pass through his friend’s company.
Convinced, she stayed. The promise of the relationship also pushed her to invest more money.
She financed this by going to lenders and selling her car.
“I also managed to borrow from friends and family saying it was for urgent use… They know my character and I had never borrowed money before,” he said. she declared.
Taking out a mortgage on his house in Malaysia was the last resort.
In September of last year – her last investment – she injected $70,000. By then, she had invested a total of $240,000 on the platform.
It was her father who warned her about investment scams, telling her she needed to make sure she could withdraw her funds.
He sent her a link to an article on a Chinese website about pork butcher scams, about a woman who had lost around $500,000.
When she read the article, she was shocked. There were pictures of the same man she had been talking to for four months.
The red flags started to make sense.
The investment platform it was on was only accessible through a dedicated website and not through an established trading app or platform like Kraken, Gemini or Crypto.com
Also, he didn’t want to video call her. He said, “We have to save a surprise for when I see you.”
When she confronted him about it, he denied it and said he was disappointed in her accusation.
Panicked, she then attempted to withdraw $140,000 she had in the account, but the customer service site told her that they did not have an online merchant who could complete the transaction. She hit that wall many times.
When she finally got one online with his help, they told her that to withdraw such a large sum and for “security reasons”, she would have to top up the funds and invest an additional $240,000.
Upon realizing her account was frozen, she found Singapore-based nonprofit Global Anti-Scam Organization (Gaso) online, which confirmed she had been scammed. They advised him not to top up the funds.
Christine hit her lowest point from September to December last year, when she considered taking her own life.
“Banks called me every day at work,” she said. “I was so stressed when I wasn’t able to answer their calls.”
Given the amount of money she owed, she was ineligible for the Debt Repayment Program, which helps debtors with regular incomes and debts of no more than $150,000 avoid bankruptcy.
For the past five months, she has tried to pay off her debts as much as possible, even taking part-time jobs and working on her days off and holidays.
However, his salary of around $4,000 a month is barely enough to cover the amount owed – $1,200 a month on a business loan and $1,000 a month to repay lenders.
Renting her current shared accommodation in an HDB apartment costs her an additional $850 a month, compared to paying $700 a month for property in Penang.
That leaves her with $250 a month for any other expenses.
Her last contact with the scammer was in October last year, after which she made a police report.
However, she has no way to recoup her losses.
Christine hopes that by sharing her story and the scammers’ modus operandi, others won’t make the same mistakes she did.
“It’s a huge union, it’s hard to take them down…but (when I wanted to kill myself) I realized what I could do was help create awareness “, she said.
“It’s the only reason I’m still alive. I don’t want it to be lost.”
This article was first published in The time of the straits. Permission required for reproduction.