As a survivor, fighting scammers is my jihad

Maimunah, retired civil servant

- Macau scam survivor

When Maimunah*, a retired civil servant, got a call from someone claiming to be from Telekom Malaysia, she was sceptical. Yet by the next evening, she lost RM75,000 of her life savings to a network of scammers after falling for psychological manipulation techniques.

While other scam survivors have retreated in shame, fearing stigma and ridicule, Maimunah decided to fight back. This is her story as told to DANIA KAMAL ARYF.

In March 2022, at around 4.30pm on a Friday, I got a call from someone who said they were from Telekom Malaysia (TM). They called to apologise as they had to suspend my phone line because I was apparently involved in a crime.

I was sceptical. I told the person I didn’t want to talk over the phone and they should tell me their manager’s name and where the office was so I could go see him myself.

The person seemed nonplussed. They gave me their name, designation and the company office address. “In a short while, the police will be in touch,” the person said.

True enough, about 10 minutes after that I got a call from someone claiming to be a sergeant from the Kota Bharu police district headquarters. I was in Kuala Lumpur and couldn’t remember the last time I was in the Kelantan capital.

I asked him what was going on but he seemed to be quite harassed, and started berating me, saying he had a lot of on his plate and didn’t need more. He really sounded like an overworked police sergeant.

After berating me, he said, “I’m going to pass you to my boss”  - an inspector. Unlike the sergeant, the inspector spoke to me politely. He told me the limited information that I was involved in a crime, and then passed me to an assistant commissioner of police (ACP).

The inspector said: “Puan Maimunah, please speak to him nicely, ya? He is our big boss. Please call him ‘Tuan’.” This inspector would say my name each time he started a sentence and he made me feel less panicked.

It was the ACP who gave me the details of my alleged involvement. He said: “Puan Maimunah, you have been found to have opened a Hong Leong bank account in Kota Bharu and that account was used by a criminal.”

He told me the criminal’s name and that he had been arrested, so now I am suspected of being part of this money laundering, drugs and firearms scheme.

“Hey! I never opened any accounts in Kota Bharu, I’ve not even been there for so long!” I protested in response.

He insisted that the account was in my name and said if I didn’t cooperate, they will have to charge me under the Official Secrets Act. “You’re not just a victim, but also a suspect. If you don’t believe me, I’ll contact Bukit Aman now,” he added.

So he kept me on the line but somehow patched in another call to someone apparently from Bukit Aman, who confirmed there was an investigation against me - Maimunah - on money laundering and that my account had been frozen.

By then, I was in a state of shock and panic. The ACP said: “Did you hear that? This is an active investigation so it is confidential. You better not tell anybody.”

He said the criminal gang had my address and there were recent murders of those implicated. “So don’t tell anybody, close the door when you’re talking to me so no one can hear,” he said. Panicked, I got up and shut the door.

It was 6.30pm when the call ended. He said he would call me the next day with updates. Fearful, I didn’t tell anyone what happened, not even my children.

Transferred to ‘Bank Negara’

The next day, he called at around the same time - 4.30pm - as promised. He said: “Maimunah, you have to speak to someone who deals with Amla (Anti-Money Laundering Act), the anti-money laundering division of Bank Negara Malaysia”. Then he transferred the call to one Miss Teoh.

Miss Teoh was very soft-spoken. She said, “Puan Maimunah, I am here to help you. We had to freeze your bank account because of suspected money laundering, so you’ll need to cooperate with me to resolve it, yeah, Puan Maimunah?”

She spoke so kindly each time and kept on saying my name - Maimunah, Maimunah, Maimunah.

I know now that this is a technique called neurolinguistic programming ⓘ Psychological approach sometimes used in therapy as a way to guide behaviour. But its efficacy hasn’t been proven. , which is akin to “mind programming”.

Studies have shown that this is used to manipulate scam victims. At the time, I was almost in a daze, completely reliant on her instructions.

Can you escape online scams?

Miss Teoh said usually accounts suspected to be involved in money laundering are frozen for two weeks, but she will do all she can to release my account after a week. “Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help you,” she kept saying, which really swayed me.

To recover my bank accounts, I had to give her all the details - my account numbers, usernames, passwords, debit and credit card numbers, ATM card numbers, all my PINs. I gave everything as if hypnotised.

“After this, you will get three text messages with a series of numbers. Please read them out to me one by one and delete the messages,” she said. I followed her instructions to a tee. I did everything she asked.

At the end of the two hours, she told me, “Don’t worry,  I am here to help you. If you feel stressed, try going out to exercise, eat well, sleep well and rest well. It will all be fine.” She was so kind, I thanked her and the call ended at about 6.30pm.

A jolt of electricity

It was only around midnight that I realised something was not right. It was like a jolt of electricity. The hairs on my arms stood up.

I was alone in the room at the time and up to that point, I didn’t tell anybody what had happened. I then called a friend who was part of the police commercial crimes division of the police. Immediately, my friend said: “You’ve been scammed! Lodge a police report tonight and cancel all your cards now!” It took until about 3am for all of that to be done.

I didn’t even know how much money was taken when I lodged my police report. It was only the next day that I called Tabung Haji and they confirmed that RM75,000 was taken out of my account in three transactions over 15 seconds. Those three text messages I had read to Miss Teoh were TAC numbers.

It was the weekend, so I had to wait until Monday before I could do anything else. I wanted to know what happened and why. I was so angry, but my anger gave me courage to seek answers.

First I went to the commercial crimes division at Bukit Aman and asked them all sorts of questions. I was not satisfied with their answers. Then I went to Tabung Haji and asked them why they didn’t bother to verify with me that the withdrawals were legitimate.

They told me that with internet banking, the TAC was the verification. Technically speaking, the scammers had gone into my online banking account and did all that.

But I asked them, in the case of such big transactions happening in 15 seconds, surely you should have a red flag to intercept the transaction and a cooling off period to verify with the account holder before releasing the money? But as far as they’re concerned, with internet banking, they don’t have to do that.

I went to my other banks and raised a few issues there, too. They had to reissue all my cards - debit, credit and ATM. But I said, “Look, just give me back my bank book.”

This was because these things never happened when I was transacting using the bank book. I had to put up a fight to get my book back.

Interestingly, the scammers did not ask for my Amanah Saham unit trust details. I found out later that this was because you can only transfer a certain amount online with Amanah Saham and the rest needs to be done over the counter.

My bank wrote to me to say that based on their investigations, everything was done correctly because there was TAC verification. But if I was dissatisfied, I could go to the Ombudsman for Financial Services. I did just that.

During the mediation, I asked about the missing red flag. I am not rich nor am I a businessperson and I have been a customer for so long that they should know it is atypical of me to make a sudden large withdrawal like that.

The head of the anti-fraud team was also at the mediation and I asked him what his role was in preventing such incidents. No answer I received satisfied me.

Worse, I contracted Covid-19 from all that running around. That meant I had to stay home for a bit, but I was still so angry.

Going to war

That was when I really decided to go to war.

I had spent decades in the civil service and many people in my network are quite influential. I contacted a friend and we worked with researchers in this area to come up with a memorandum containing 13 recommendations to protect the public from online scams.

The memorandum was endorsed by influential organisations and individuals, and it was sent to the prime minister, the cabinet, the opposition leader’s office and all MPs.

We made various suggestions from advocacy and awareness programmes to doing more studies to understand if there is a lacuna in the law allowing for such crimes to go unpunished.

We urged for a better safety mechanism to red flag large or unusual banking transactions, and proposed a way to insure our bank deposits against losses from fraud or scams, the same way one would insure a house from disasters or fire.

You can even insure your face these days, so why not your life savings? And I’m not talking about the Deposit Insurance Corporation (PIDM), which only insures the deposits from a financial institution's bankruptcy.

We also proposed that law enforcement use studies on neurolinguistic programming to train their staff and educate the public. Right now, if someone goes to the police to say they think they were hypnotised they won’t be taken seriously, but this is an actual technique used to manipulate people into believing scammers.

At the time, I recorded a voice note to share my experience and that note went viral.

Some friends overseas, who received the note from their networks, told me that in their countries there are special bank accounts for senior citizens. These accounts have different safeguards against online scams and fraud, because seniors were found to be particularly vulnerable to such scams. So why can’t we have the same?

Sadly, despite strong support from NGOs and influential individuals, the memorandum was not acted on appropriately by the government at the time. But I’m not stopping.

A personal jihad

I refuse to be scared or trapped in anxiety. I choose to rise against this system that allowed this to happen. Of course I feel anger, sadness and shame, but I choose to fight.

When this happened, I had many friends who said, “Why were you so stupid? You are such an experienced civil servant but you fell for this?” If it was up to my feelings, I would have retreated in shame but I steeled myself. I prayed incessantly for strength.

As a Muslim, I accept my fate and this helped me become a survivor, not a victim. When it first happened, I kept asking myself, “Why me? I pay my zakat, do charity and give back. I never took a sen from public coffers, I don’t have hundreds upon hundreds of thousands in the bank like business people. I live purely on my pension. Why me?”

But now I believe Allah chose me because I was in a position to do something about it.

There are many scam victims or survivors who can share their story and raise awareness but they are ashamed to do so. They are called stupid, ignorant and so on.

I don’t give two hoots what people say and all I want to do is share this information with others, especially senior citizens who are more vulnerable.

I continue to leverage on the network I built from being in the civil service. The Dewan Negara speaker at the time was once my boss and I contacted him asking if I could go speak to senators about this topic and to advocate for the government to adopt our proposals. I did so and then soon after the government changed.

Can you escape the Macau scam?

Things have been promising under the new government.

I strongly believe, to fight this scam problem, we must work in a multidisciplinary and multi agency manner. Now we have the Anti Scam Coalition, endorsed by the government, which includes major NGOs and even telecommunication giants.

But I still hope we can have a select committee in Parliament with MPs from both sides of the divide to work together to help the rakyat. Billions of ringgit have been swindled from them via scams.

Some people have asked me why I don’t just choose to forgive my scammers and move on.

Yes, forgiveness is a virtue in any religion and Prophet Muhammad forgave those who did worse to him… but I think I would rather meet my scammers in the afterlife and see who they are first.

I will continue to fight them in this life, not by hunting them down and beating them up, but by speaking out, raising awareness.

This is my jihad. I may have lost tens of thousands of ringgit in this life, but with this jihad, God willing, I will receive rewards from Allah far exceeding my losses.

*Editor’s Note: Scam survivors' names have been changed to respect their privacy and to avoid prevailing stigma against them.

If you feel that you may have been scammed, contact the National Scam Response Centre’s hotline at 997 for help.

Since 2022, multiple banks have announced phasing out the TAC as a form of verification, using other forms like push notifications on the banking application instead or other two-factor authentication techniques.

In December 2022, the government announced the National Scam Response Centre, a joint effort by the National Anti-Financial Crime Centre, police, Bank Negara Malaysia, MACC, telecommunications and banking industries.

Read the stories of other scam survivors

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Published by Kini News Lab on Feb 26, 2024.

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