If not for a quick-thinking staff member at the remittance agency, Madam Oh Ah Eng, 50, would have become yet another victim of the kidnap scam.
A member of the counter staff, who wanted to be known only as Madam Liang, noticed that Madam Oh was holding onto a piece of paper and looked worried when she was at the agency last week.
Madam Liang, 40, who works at Zhongguo Remittance Centre at People's Park Complex, then wrote a note in Chinese, asking her if she was being cheated.
Madam Oh did not respond, which made her even more suspicious. Unknown to Madam Oh, Madam Liang decided not to proceed with the transaction and called the police instead.
When contacted, Madam Liang declined to be interviewed.
But her colleague, Mr Huang Guan Hua, 30, said that the workers there often checked with customers to see if they were being coerced into making remittances.
He said: "No one comes to remit money looking distraught and flustered. When we sense something is wrong, we sometimes gesture or write notes to ask if they are being cheated because we know they are not allowed to get off the phone in kidnap scams."
Mr Huang, who has worked in the industry for about five years, added that of the thousands of customers they checked with last year, about 10 had been involved in such scams.
In such cases, they would not proceed with the transaction and inform the police instead.
Statistics released by the police yesterday showed that the overall crime rate hit a 20-year low last year, with 31,404 cases.
Commercial crime up
But commercial crime, which includes cheating cases such as phone scams, has gone up.
There were more than 44 successful "kidnap" phone scams last year, which is almost a five-fold increase from the nine cases in 2010.
The amount of money cheated also went up from $98,000 in 2010 to $250,000 last year.
The Internet love scam also saw a significant increase in the number of victims and amount involved. (See other report.)
In all, the number of reported phone scam cases increased from 652 in 2010 to 828 last year. The total amount of money scammed went up from about $4 million to about $6.6 million.
In Madam Oh's case, she got the call at home around 9am last Thursday.
At that time, the housewife was alone at home as her husband, also 50, had gone to work in a factory. Her son, an NSF, was in camp.
A male voice on the phone was crying and begging for help. It sounded like her 21-year-old son.
When she asked him where he was, he said he didn't know before another voice came on.
Madam Oh said in Mandarin: "The man who took over the phone told me that my son had got into some trouble and was being beaten up.
"He said he only wanted money and asked me if I wanted to settle matters quietly."
Worried for her only child, the housewife agreed to remit money to the "kidnapper".
At first, the "kidnapper" asked for $10,000, but Madam Oh said she did not have so much money.
She said: "He sounded like he was from mainland China and was very fierce."
She added that when she hesitated and expressed suspicion regarding the authenticity of the situation, the "kidnapper" threatened to break one of her son's legs.
He then asked her how much money she had and she replied that she could withdraw about $2,900 from a bank.
The "kidnapper" then asked Madam Oh for her mobile phone number.
Madam Oh said: "He called me on my mobile phone and told me not to hang up but to put the phone into my pocket so he could listen to my movements."
When Madam Oh found that the bank near her home was closed, the "kidnapper" then told her to take a taxi to People's Park Centre to withdraw and remit the money to a bank account in China. The account was with the China Agricultural Bank and belonged to one "Zhou Ye".
At the remittance agency, Madam Liang noted Madam Oh's strange behaviour and wrote a note in Mandarin with the words: "Are you being cheated" and showed it to Madam Oh. But Madam Oh said she did not respond.
She said: "I neither nodded nor shook my head because I didn't know how to respond. I was too confused."
She told Madam Liang to remit the money and left.
Madam Oh ran into her son-in-law near her home and gestured to him to stay silent as the "kidnapper" was still on the phone. She then whispered to him what had happened and he told her that she had been cheated.
After that, Madam Oh called the police. She found her son safe at home when she returned.
She said: "When I saw him, I knew for sure that I had been cheated."
Hours later, she received a call from the police informing her that she could retrieve the $2,900 from the remittance agency as the transaction had not been made.
Police confirmed that they received a call at 2.10pm on Feb 2.
This article was first published in The New Paper.