It’s easy to think you wouldn’t fall for a scam. Until it happens to you. Unfortunately, the very thing that allowed us to advance as a species is also what makes us incredibly vulnerable — our trust in others. Here’s what you can do when that trust gets violated.
Since the article on How to Invest in Ponzi schemes came out in Feb 2016, I’ve been contacted by a few individuals who have shared their stories with me. Stories of investments gone bad, include ones in land-banking, overseas luxury villas, distressed properties, gold buyback schemes, farms, agarwood, and palm oil. And it seems the latest round of defaults is happening to Shenton Wealth Holdings (a.k.a., Shenton Holdings, Shenton International, Shenton Group, and SHB) whose partner is Citation Capital Asia.
What Safeguards are Currently in Place
By virtue of being called an “investment”, you might assume that it’s regulated under the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). However, MAS regulates only licensed financial services companies. To check if a company is licensed, you can search their Financial Institutions Directory.
“Alternative investments” that are not licensed, are not under the jurisdiction of MAS. As such, they will most likely appear on the MAS Investor Alert List, which tells the public the company is unregulated in Singapore.
The other agency that deals with investments is the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) of the Singapore Police Force. But they are only involved once a fraud or commercial crime is under investigation. This means enough victims must come forward first before they start their investigation. Since many victims do not report because of fear or embarrassment, or because they still cling to hopeful optimism, there is often a big delay to these investigations.
Not every company listed on the Investor Alert List will engage in fraudulent activities. Some may be completely legit. But here’s the problem: all scams have some legitimate aspect to them (just like how illegal gambling dens are shops or cyber cafes in the daytime). So fraud is very difficult to prove. But if you are interested in a company on the list, and would like to do further research on customers’ reviews/testimonials, here are a few forums you can try:
Scamalert.sg is a site launched by the police and the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) as part of a 2014 anti-scam public education campaign.
Straits Times has a scam section. Personal accounts of scams might also be found in Hardware Forum’s Money Mind page.
And there’s a Facebook group called Singapore Scams Discussion which you can join.
What to Do If You Are Scammed
1. Report it to the police.
Recall that CAD cannot start an investigation until enough people have come forward. And because these companies are so intricately set up and operated, it takes a long time to compile enough evidence to prove fraud. Hence, the earlier you report it, the faster CAD can get involved. And hopefully fewer people will become future victims.
2. Compile any notes, statements, letters, or any other correspondences as evidence.
To appear legit, some scams use fake deeds, fraudulent insurance letters, or false advertisements (which violate the Consumer Protection Fair Trading Act). Remember to save these, as they could be extremely useful to the investigation. Also, because investigations can take a long time, saving such evidence can help you jog your memory. You might have a good memory of the events today, but will you still remember them in three years time?
3. Cut your losses.
Remember, an investment lost to fraud is a sunk cost. Don’t continue throwing good money/resources at bad. You may not think this happens, but it does. Sometimes, even after victims start questioning things, they still don’t stop shelling out money. This is common with internet love scams.
4. Don’t expect you’ll get much of your money back.
This is why you are told to never to invest anything you can’t bear to part with. In other words, don’t gamble with food money or retirement money. Only use leftover, non-obligatory money that you can afford to lose.
5. Move on and start over.
Real wealth building is boring. Sometimes you might get lucky with one or two key investments, but for the vast majority of times, the process is very boring — “rinse and repeat”. People ask me how I was able to build my nest egg. The answer is that it wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t through speculative investing. I’ve been earning and saving since age 16, so I’ve had many years of accumulation and preservation.
A lot of money that people spend is done without much thought, almost mindlessly. Many times, it’s done in a futile attempt to please others or ourselves, or to uphold our outward status. Not spending money is nearly risk free, and more powerful than investing. You want double-digit returns? If you saved (did not spend) $200 a week – some people can easily spend this amount on massages/fancy dinners/gadgets/cigarettes – that’s equivalent to a >10% per annum return on a $100,000 investment.
Even if that unspent money is in the bank and earns measly interest, at least the original amount is safeguarded. But wait, we are told by “financial experts” never to put too much in the bank because inflation will rob us. Indeed, the low interest rates and threat of inflation are what drives some diligent savers to be lured by scammers promising high investment returns.
But keep in mind that investment risks are often underestimated even by financial experts (remember the Great Financial crisis?). And, more specifically, it’s not inflation that is the real thief, it’s lifestyle inflation that ends up robbing most people. And lifestyle inflation is something you have more control over. Better to have the money in the bank, than to lose it completely through chasing yields or unnecessarily upgrading one’s lifestyle.
Scams are everywhere, not just in Singapore. And one of the biggest reasons why it’s hard for the government to recover your money is because once that money is transferred overseas, to multiple accounts and layers of shell companies, it’s hard to get back. Also, just proving something is a scam takes time and a mountain of evidence. It can be hard to differentiate bad business practices from outright fraud.
Companies also change names and locations often. These are problems all nations are facing today. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.
If you’re a victim, coming forward and sharing your experience helps other potential victims.
If you’re thinking about investing in a “guaranteed, no risk, high-yielding overseas alternative investment”, ask yourself this: If the opportunity is so good, why would someone fly all the way to Singapore to sell it? Why wouldn’t they just sell it to their own people? And if they truly had some secret strategy to double your money in a short time period, why would they even share it with you?