In the past few years, MPs have encountered residents whose lives have been devastated by online crimes such as scams. Not only have these victims lost significant amounts of hard-earned monies or retirement savings; they also live with the mental anguish and guilt of being gullible enough to fall for such deception. Often, the victims were vulnerable in certain ways and susceptible to exploitation, such as those who live alone and are desperate for friends to chat with, or those searching for a life partner who then become the victim of a love scam. Some may blame the victims for being foolish or authors of their own misfortune, but this ignores the fact that we are dealing here with perpetrators who are parts of organized syndicates who appear well-trained to find targets. Their criminal behaviour is truly despicable.
After their ordeals, victims usually report the matter to the police, hoping that their monies can be recovered, or, at the very least, that the perpetrators would be arrested, prosecuted and punished. Due to the organized nature of scams, which are often transnational, police have the unenviable task of informing victims that their chances of recovering their monies are often slim. Such news to a younger victim is certainly bad news, but at least he or she has the potential to recover from the loss. Such news to a retiree, however, can be crushing. Scams have become a major crime issue in Singapore, warranting the police issuing a separate scam update in its annual crime reporting since last year.
I therefore support the rationale for the Computer Misuse Act and the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes Act (CDSA) Amendment Bills. These Bills tighten the net around those who facilitate money-laundering including letting their bank accounts and Singpass accounts be used for fund transfers. Reducing the opportunities for syndicates to re-direct the fruits of crime is a step in the right direction. As to how effective these provisions will be to disrupt the operations of criminal syndicates, only time will tell.
That said, I have three clarifications and concerns about the CDSA Bill.
- First, on the difficulties of prosecuting money mules currently. According to the MHA Press Release of 18 April, a large number of money mules arrested by police could not be prosecuted due to difficulties in proving their intent to facilitate the criminal activities. It was highlighted that between 2020 and 2022, more than 19,000 money mules were investigated by Police but fewer than 250 cases were eventually prosecuted. This works out to a prosecution rate of just 1.3%. Could MHA clarify whether the balance 98.7% of cases were all not prosecuted due to the difficulties in proving intention, or includes non-prosecutions due on other grounds?
- Secondly, on the likely effect of the proposed amendments to reduce the mental element required to prosecute money mules. Clauses 3 to 6 of the CDSA Bill will amend Sections 50, 51, 53 and 54, to criminalise acts of money-laundering done unintentionally or unknowingly, if rashness or negligence can be shown. The punishment for such acts of rashness or negligence will be lower than for acts done deliberately or with knowledge. Coming back to the earlier statistic of not being able to prosecute more than 98% of money mules investigated in the last 3 years, what is MHA’s assessment of how these changes will improve prosecution rates in future?
- Finally, on the new CDSA offence of assisting another person to retain the proceeds of crime, under the proposed new Section 55A. It is stated in the Explanatory Statement to the Bill that the new Section 55A is meant to criminalise certain acts that facilitate money-laundering “regardless of a person’s mental state”. My concern here is about persons who may be manipulated into letting others use their bank accounts to transfer money. I encountered one resident recently who told me that her bank account had been frozen by police as it had apparently been used to receive or make some suspicious fund transfers. I tried asking her how her account got compromised, but she was unable to answer coherently. She appeared, to me at least, to be a person who was easily confused and cognitively impaired, and may have been made use of.
I note that the proposed Section 55A(3) and (4) provide a defence to a charge under S55A if the person did not know or had no reasonable grounds to believe that the funds concerned were the proceeds of crime. Under the law then, a suspected money mule is expected to make some sort of reasoned assessment about the nature of the transaction. How will the authorities approach a case where the suspect appears to be mentally impaired?
While we certainly want to curtail scams and money-laundering, we also need to be fair to suspects who may also be victims themselves.