THE call came on a lazy Sunday morning. Sensing it was urgent -- usually the coiffure technician wouldn't call more than once -- I plodded to my mobile phone and answered it, despite not recognising the number flashing on the screen.
"Hello, is this Chok Suat Ling?" the voice on the other end asked in clipped Bahasa Malaysia. When I answered in the affirmative, he continued: "I'm from the police, and your name has come up in a money laundering case we are investigating. We would like you to give a statement and provide us some details."
As I had not recently laundered anything except a pile of filthy clothes and stuffed toys, the call aroused my suspicions. From experience, too -- journalists occasionally receive calls, and sometimes visits, from the cops over stories that are published -- something just did not sound right about that "policeman".
Agitated that I had been torn away from witnessing an argument unfold in real-time between two friends on Facebook, I told him to take his scam elsewhere.
He shot back tersely: "If you don't cooperate, I will issue a warrant of arrest against you." Unperturbed, I told him to make my day, and hung up. I then holstered my smartphone and swaggered off. Two days later, it was reported in the New Straits Times that a lawyer in Tawau, Sabah, had fallen for the same scam and was conned into parting with an eyebrow-raising RM3.2 million.
He had panicked after being told by a man impersonating a police officer that all his bank accounts would be frozen to facilitate an investigation. After being told by the sympathetic "police officer" that he could transfer his money into a different account until the investigations were completed, the lawyer did so. Naturally, attempts to access the bank account later failed and he could not find the "police officer".
Checks show that a number of "money launderers" have also been called up by "Bukit Aman" to "assist in investigations". Con artists, it appears, have found a new method to scam an unsuspecting public.
A few years ago, they would call pretending to be bank officers and talk their targets into divulging their credit card details. At its height, Bank Negara received more than 250 complaints every four months from those who lost up to RM10,000 through unauthorised transactions.
There were also the SMS scams -- once so serious that the police were receiving at least one report a day. Some victims lost more than RM1 million. Another tactic syndicates used was to call and demand a ransom after claiming that their loved ones had been kidnapped. The target -- usually a housewife or senior citizen -- would hear someone "crying" in the background and fall for the ploy. They paid up, only to find out later that their children or relatives were never abducted.
Why do people continue to be easily conned? Malaysians have fallen for almost every scam there is and fallen prey to everyone there is -- phishers, fortune tellers, bomoh and insurance agents. There have been many awareness campaigns and reports on cheating cases in the media. But these have done absolutely nothing to enlighten the naive and ignorant.
What's also alarming is how they got our names and mobile phone number. Did they get it from the telcos?
Deputy Information, Communications and Culture Minister Joseph Salang Gandum dismissed that on Monday in Parliament. He stressed that there was no truth to allegations that telephone service providers sold or provided their clients' numbers to others. Many numbers, he said, were "harvested randomly".
So, what should we do to put a stop to such calls?
According to the experts:
DON'T be too quick to disclose your mobile phone number, whether it be for contests, or on Facebook;
INSTALL apps on smartphones that can block phone calls and even text messages. There are websites on the Internet providing lists of numbers from known scammers, spammers and telemarketers;
IF all fails, and the call comes through, tell them your parents aren't home. Or just hang up.