Harassment cases in Singapore by loansharks rise as they go digital
Telecommunications authorities are now working with police after loan sharks send messages with clips showing damage and harassment
By Victor Loh
For Madam Tan (not her real name), the sole breadwinner juggling three jobs to feed her family, her troubles with unlicensed moneylenders began with a bank loan of S$10,000 (US$7,491) in 2002 which eventually snowballed into S$400,000 (US$299,654) after she turned to loan sharks.
The harassment began in the form of SMS messages, followed by WhatsApp messages threatening to burn down her Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, and kidnap her three children.
Tan’s case is just one of the increasing number of such harassment cases that the Singapore police deal with. Between January and April 2018, such cases without damage to property increased 17.5 per cent to 942, as compared with the same period in 2017. The trend mirrors a 33.8 per cent rise in such cases last year compared with 2016.
The loan sharks have also adapted to the digital landscape by using new tricks to harass victims via mobile messaging and social media platforms. The new modus operandi allows them to target larger groups of people, said Superintendent Han Teck Kwong, Head of the Police’s Unlicensed Moneylending Strikeforce.
Madam Tan had borrowed S$20,000 (US$14,981) to S$30,000 (US$22,472) from a loan shark in 2013 to repay her initial bank loan. Her husband has been unemployed since 2013.
She said: “My number circulated (within the unlicensed moneylenders’ circle) very fast. I paid them promptly, so to them, perhaps I was a good ‘payer’, so many of them approached me.”
Soon, the number of loan sharks harassing her grew as she took out more loans. “(I still owed) around S$115,000 (US$86,142) to over 50 unlicensed moneylenders,” said Tan.
“They (the loan sharks) spray painted my house and harassed my neighbours. They told my neighbours that I asked them to be my guarantor.”
She eventually lodged a police report, but had already paid out over S$400,000 (US$299,625) by then.
Aside from the usual methods of harassing neighbours and spray painting messages, loan sharks also resort to extreme measures to harass their victims. Mr Han said: “Some of these unlicensed moneylending syndicates, will for example, attach pictures or even video clips of physical harassment (to their mobile messages), such as setting fire to the units or locking up the units.”
The shift in tactics by loan sharks, which was noticed in 2012, has also prompted the police to work with other stakeholders such as the Info-communications Media Development Authority and telcos to deter such harassment acts, said Mr Han.
He added that victims would often get “hooked” onto other loan sharks, either within the same syndicate or others, after borrowing from the first one.
“It is very easy for the loan sharks to share information (of the borrower) and the purpose is for the victim to keep on paying and paying,” he said.
“That is the reason why we always stress that anyone who receives such messages not to respond and not to interact with the senders.”
Under Singapore’s Moneylenders Act, first-time unlicensed moneylenders or their assistants may be fined between S$30,000 (US$22,472) and S$300,000 (US$224,719). They may also be jailed for a term not exceeding four years, and shall also be liable to be punished with caning of not more than six strokes.
First-time offenders found guilty of committing loan shark harassment may be jailed up to five years, fined between S$5,000 (US$3,745) and S$50,000 (US$37,453), and may be caned between three and six strokes.