The following question stood in the name of Assoc Prof Jamus Jerome Lim –
5 To ask the Minister for Home Affairs (a) what is the (i) average (ii) longest and (iii) shortest time it takes for the Anti-Scam Centre (ASC) to investigate scam cases thus far; and (b) does the ASC provide guidance to individuals who experience frozen accounts to appeal to the courts under section 35(8) of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song (Aljunied): Question No 5.
The Minister of State for Home Affairs (Ms Sun Xueling) (for the Minister for Home Affairs): Mr Speaker, Sir, we had answered a Parliamentary Question on the time it takes Police to investigate scam cases just recently in July 2022.
The time taken to complete scam investigations depends on a couple of factors such as the type of scam, how well the scammer covers his tracks and whether or not the monies have been transferred overseas, because if it involves overseas jurisdictions, which often is the case when it comes to scams that happened in Singapore, then the time taken is necessarily longer. In that sense, every case in terms of investigation time differs significantly.
Bank accounts suspected to be involved in scam operations will be frozen by the Police, with monies seized as proceeds of crime. The freeze on the bank accounts will be lifted upon completion of investigations.
Persons whose bank accounts are frozen can make an application to the Courts to withdraw money for reasonable living or legitimate expenses. Section 35(8) of the Criminal Procedure Code allows the account holder to submit an application to the courts to access their funds for the payment of basic expenses, including any payment for foodstuff, rent, discharge of a mortgage, medicine, medical treatment, taxes, insurance premiums and public utility charges, amongst others. Where asked, the Police will inform account holders of this possibility and advise them to seek legal advice.
Mr Speaker: Mr Gerald Giam.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I thank the Minister of State for her replies. I have got to two supplementary questions. Nowadays, bank accounts are absolutely essential for daily living because if the bank account is frozen, it could severely impact the person’s ability to conduct daily transactions like receiving their salary. My first supplementary question is, the Minister of State mentioned that they can apply to conduct some limited transactions, does this include being able to receive their salary into their bank accounts?
Secondly, can the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and even the Prison Service provide banks with a letter stating that the investigation or conviction against the person has been completed and what the outcome is so the bank will not flag these persons as being high-risk and prevent them from being from using the bank account or opening a bank account.
Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for his supplementary questions. Indeed, we recognise that victims of scams require their bank accounts to be able to make daily transactions. We all recognise the importance of having a bank account to facilitate these transactions. I think the difficulty that the Police faces is that during investigations, some of these bank accounts, unfortunately, from the victim’s perspective, they are absolutely a victim in the absolute sense.
But what has happened to some of these accounts is that they may be also tainted with the sense that scam monies may also have been remitted into these accounts, because when a scam syndicate operates, we often see that monies are transferred from one bank account to another and there is often co-mingling of monies in bank accounts. So, the Police actually has to freeze the relevant bank accounts for the purposes of investigations.
The Police freezes these bank accounts when there are two instances. Let me just share with you, for instance, where another victim has made a police report and designates a specific bank account as having received their scam monies. So, the victim from your perspective, victim A for instance, may see himself or herself as the victim who has transferred monies out. But actually, if you look at the entire scam syndicates and its operations, this particular victim A’s bank account, could have been compromised whereby another victim’s monies has been transferred in as well. That is number one.
Number two, as part of fund tracing investigations, because for instance, in a job scam, it can impact hundreds of persons at the same time. So, as part of tracing the flows of monies, they will have to freeze many bank accounts and you will often see that there are multiple claimants on the specific sums of monies.
I just wanted to share that this is the background as to why the Police has to freeze bank accounts. For instance, you mentioned where a victim actually requires a bank account to be able to facilitate their transactions, if the bank account is actually frozen, what we would suggest to the victim, is actually for them to open another bank account for the purposes of receiving their salaries, because unfortunately, like I mentioned in my original reply, the time taken for investigations for scams can differ significantly, depending on the complexity of the case. And we do not want to unnecessarily impede the victims’ ability to transact on a bank account, so we would typically recommend that they set up a separate bank account, to be able to receive their salaries.
On your second point, there are various reasons why a bank account can be blacklisted. A victim, like I mentioned before, they themselves see themselves as a victim in the absolute sense, but unfortunately their bank account has been compromised, it could have been used almost in a sense like a money mule, because monies have been transferred in and out of the account. So, there could be various reasons why an account is blacklisted. The Police would give inputs on whether an investigation has completed to the banks, but the banks will have to make their own assessment as to whether or not to continue to blacklist a particular account holder, when it comes to setting up new bank accounts.
Mr Speaker: Mr Gerald Giam.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I thank the Minister of State for the detailed answer. I think we are on the same page here, but I understand that once the Police informs the bank that a certain account needs to be frozen, will that impact that account holders’ ability to open up another bank account? As in, will the bank flag this person is high-risk and therefore not allow him or her to even open another bank account and so, that would present difficulties for them.
So, the purpose or my second supplementary question just now, was then, can MHA provide more information to the banks on the update of the investigations, so that the banks can use that to assess and perhaps, lower the risk level of this particular account holder, so that they can allow them to open up, may be, a limited purpose bank account.
Ms Sun Xueling: I thank the Member for his further question. The Police will do their very best to provide information to be able to help these victims move on and expedite investigations as much as necessary to be helpful to the victims. But, MHA will only be able to share information that does not compromise investigations. So, I think it differs on a case-by-case basis.
Ministry of Home Affairs
29 November 2022