SINGAPORE, Julu 10 — A 75-year-old woman was manipulated by a love scammer into opening and handing over bank accounts to receive over S$400,000 of suspicious funds, later claiming that she did not do so out of greed or for financial gain, a court heard on Tuesday (July 9).

Because the harm caused was not entirely within the woman's control, the judge presiding over her case said it was difficult to decide how much weight is to be placed on harm when offenders like her surrender their bank accounts to crime syndicates.

Kang Pue Hua, who worked jobs as a coffee shop and salon assistant, had opened the bank accounts that were used by unknown third parties to receive and make fund transfers at the direction of her “online boyfriend”.

At an earlier hearing in May this year, Kang had pleaded guilty to one count of abetting cheating. She had also admitted to another charge of obstruction of justice by providing false information to the police.

Another cheating charge and three charges under the Computer Misuse Act will be taken into consideration at her sentencing in a subsequent court hearing on August 15.

What happened

Sometime before December 2021, Kang met a person known to her as “John Lee Marina” on WhatsApp, whose real identity remains unknown.

John claimed he was a Chinese Singaporean who had lived in the United States for many years before coming to Singapore and working on board a ship.

In December 2021, John asked Kang to open an Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) bank account for his use, which Kang agreed to.

She then visited the Ang Mo Kio ICBC branch on December 24, 2021 and applied to open a bank account, declaring to the bank that she would be the sole operator of the account despite knowing that she would allow John to control the account.

Kang then arranged for the account’s ATM card to be mailed to John and sent the account pin via WhatsApp.

From December 27 that year to 25 February, 2022, the ICBC account was used by unknown third parties to receive S$259,481.64 considered to be of suspicious origins and make fund transfers.

On January 3, 2022, a woman lodged a police report that she had transferred S$10,300 as instructed by a caller known as “Kelvin Lin” to an OCBC bank account.

A few months later on March 29, another woman lodged a police report that she had transferred S$130,000 to accounts including an ICBC and a Maybank accounts.

Investigations revealed that these three accounts were registered in Kang’s name and had received a total sum of S$446,581.64 which were found to be suspicious.

Following the January police report, Kang made a false statement when questioned by police in March 2022, stating that she did not give her OCBC account to another person to use.

She also claimed that she lost her OCBC ATM card and that the pin was written on the back of the card.

However, this information was false and she subsequently admitted to having discussed the pending police interview with John to conceal that she had passed the banking information to him.

The prosecution sought a sentence of between six- and eight-weeks’ jail for Kang’s offences, citing the high amount of criminal proceeds that flowed through the accounts opened by Kang.

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Ng Jun Kai said that the “enormous” amount of money of over S$400,000 should be factored into Kang’s sentence.

He added that probation would not be an appropriate or viable sentencing option for the woman since the offence and harm caused was “serious”.

Public defender Vadi PVSS, who represented Kang, instead urged that a probation suitability report be called for his client.

He said that Kang was a victim deceived by a scammer who claimed to be a widower with a daughter, preying on her “deep-seated longing for companionship and security”.

Mr Vadi also highlighted that Kang was the sole caregiver to her husband, who had multiple health conditions and that her son was unable to work due to a psychiatric condition.

Kang had continued to work jobs as a coffee shop and salon helper at her age to make ends meet, Mr Vadi added.

Despite her personal financial difficulties, Kang was susceptible to “emotional manipulation” by the scammer she believed to be in a romantic relationship with, and borrowed money which she believed the scammer needed to urgently “save his job”.

Kang also lost S$20,000 to the scammers and borrowed money to give to said scammers despite her already precarious financial situation, which highlighted her “gullibility”, Mr Vadi argued.

Mr Vadi added that probation would not be a “mere slap on the wrist” as any breach of its conditions would lead to a jail term, and that Kang had no prior trouble with the law since this incident.

Should probation not be found to be a suitable sentence, he asked the court to consider a lighter sentence of one week’s jail for Kang.

“Occasionally a case arises that troubles the conscience of even the seasoned lawyer. This is one such case,” said the woman’s lawyer.

“Before you stands a frail 75-year-old woman, who, facing a bleak future, was deceitfully manipulated into actions she would never have considered under normal circumstances.”

In reply, DPP Ng pointed out that while Mr Vadi had mentioned that Kang had been "manipulated" multiple times, he said that the defence may have "exaggerated the conduct" but said the prosecution accepted that Kang was “deceived”.

DPP Ng added that offenders in such cases typically do not know what their accounts will be used for but also accepted that Kang had not committed the offence out of greed.

District Judge Ong Chin Rhu then asked the prosecution how Kang’s culpability in her case would compare to another offender who opens a bank account for a friend, but the account was not used to scam others.

DPP Ng said that it would be “about the same” culpability, given that in both scenarios the parties would be unaware that illegal transactions would take place and they had no personal benefit to handing over the account.

To this, the judge said it seemed that the offence was committed not so much due to a criminal motive, but due to her being manipulated into committing an offence.

Those found guilty of abetting cheating can be jailed for up to three years, be fined, or both.

Anyone who obstructs the course of justice can be jailed for up to seven years, be fined, or face both punishments. — TODAY