A scammer used my bank account, but I was the one locked up

Jasmine, entrepreneur

- Mule account scam survivor

Mule accounts are accounts used by online scammers to move funds and often the account holders are aware that their account is being used by a third party who pays them.

But young mother Jasmine* was shocked when police came to her door, claiming her account was used in a scam. Soon she was in a lock-up. This is her story as told to DANIA KAMAL ARYF.

I have a company. My husband and I used it to try our hand at business.

Cryptocurrency trading was the new thing at the time and there were still no real regulations around it so there was no need to get any approvals to trade in it in Malaysia.*

It was perfectly legal, so we obtained some Bitcoin and traded them for cash with those interested.

My husband has a finance background and he always made sure all the businesses we embarked on were legally compliant. So he would ask people who bought Bitcoin from us to give their personal information and a copy of their IC.

We had many transactions, some were several thousand ringgit, some were just a few hundred ringgit. In the world of cryptocurrency, that is an extremely small amount. With that in mind, my husband didn’t ask for IC copies from these small buyers.

After a couple of weeks we didn’t find it to be a viable business, so we moved on to other things.

It would be a year and a half later when one of those transactions came back to haunt us.

Arrested for scamming

Out of the blue, I got a call from the police claiming that I was being investigated for being part of a scam. At first I thought it was a Macau scam, where someone impersonates a police officer over the phone to swindle money off you. But it was real.

We went to the police station to get to the bottom of this. It turned out that one of the people who bought RM500 worth of Bitcoin from us had in fact scammed someone else of that money.

According to police, someone had purchased clothing from consumer-to-consumer e-commerce platform Carousell and banked RM500 to the provided bank account number of the seller.

But the person never received the item so they lodged a police report. That bank account she was given was my company’s account, so as the company owner, I was deemed responsible.

Can you escape online scams?

We checked through our transactions and found that we did receive the RM500 paid by the complainant. But at the time, we were sent that receipt as proof of payment for the Bitcoin which we sold to a man.

As a seller, my concern was only that the payment was made to me and that the transfer reflected in my account. I didn’t check if the account holder’s name matched the person I was selling the Bitcoin to. I didn’t think I needed to.

We showed all this to the police, but they were adamant I had scammed that woman.

I remember asking the police repeatedly why they couldn’t just close the case when there was sufficient proof that I was not part of that scam in any way. But I never got an answer.

They arrested me under Section 420 of the Penal Code for cheating. They told me it’s not a big deal. “Just plead guilty,” the police officer said.

I knew that if I pleaded guilty, I would have this conviction on my record permanently. Why would I want that? I decided to fight it in court.

Held in a cell

On the day I was charged, they put me in a holding cell at the courthouse. I was there with men who were also waiting to be charged or prison inmates waiting to attend their hearing.

Some of the men were leering at me. I was a young, sheltered woman, completely out of place. The guard placed a chair outside the cell and let me sit there.

They placed black ink on my hands with a roller, fingerprinted me and took mugshots.

It was also during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and I had a baby waiting at home. I was terrified.

I was there for about an hour while waiting to be freed on bail. The bail was several thousand ringgit and I was facing a fine, or worse, jail of up to 10 years and whipping. All that for RM500, which I did not even cheat anyone of.

I attended court twice after that. The second time was for the hearing. The magistrate wasn’t impressed with the case at all and basically said it was a waste of the court’s time.

The third time, the verdict was delivered and I was acquitted. The ordeal cost me RM15,000 in legal fees.

Since that happened, I never shared my bank account numbers again. For business, we now go through a payment gateway, so our bank account number is not exposed.

How many others had to plead guilty?

It has been several years on but I’m still traumatised by the ordeal. Even when I think of that short time in the holding cell, I feel like crying.

I have always been a goody two shoes. As a student, I was petrified at even the idea of skipping school and there I was in a lock-up. The entire experience was absolutely degrading.

Still, I was able to overcome this relatively unscathed because I was in a position where I could pay a lawyer to go through the legal process.

How many others found themselves in my position and how many could afford the legal fees to fight it?

How many are stuck with a criminal record because police told them to plead guilty? And what about the actual scammer who bought Bitcoin from us?

I returned the RM500 to the person who paid for clothing she never received. I didn’t have to but I did it out of good conscience.

But who will compensate me for the RM15,000 in legal fees and the trauma I went through?

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

Since Jan 15, 2019, cryptocurrency trading is regulated under the Capital Markets and Services (Prescription of Securities) (Digital Currency and Digital Token) Order 2019.

The list of operators allowed to trade in digital assets like cryptocurrency is published and updated by the Securities Commission here.

Since 2021, banks have allowed customers to transfer funds via Quick Response Codes (QR Codes) or using their mobile phone numbers, instead of sharing bank account numbers.

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

Read the stories of other scam survivors

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Published by Kini News Lab on Feb 26, 2024.

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Ooi Choon Nam & Aidila Razak
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