Old Singapore Dollars for New Rupiah

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A gang of scammers is targeting elderly people in Jakarta by offering Singapore dollars at an exchange rate that’s too good to be true.

At about 9.30am on July 16, Hannah (60) had just walked out of her house in Kembangan, West Jakarta, when she was approached by a well-dressed man carrying a suitcase. He asked Hannah to help him find an address. He claimed to be an oil tycoon from Singapore, visiting Indonesia on a charity mission. He said his suitcase was full of Singapore dollars, which he wanted to exchange for rupiah, so he could donate the money to a Mrs. Masitoh, the manager of some orphanages and Islamic charities.

While they were chatting, an older man walked up and joined the conversation. He told Hannah they should help the Singaporean to exchange his money. At that point, a white car pulled up. The old man recognised the vehicle, saying it belonged to his friend who worked at a bank. He invited Hannah and the “oil tycoon” to enter the vehicle to discuss how to exchange the money.

In the car, the men asked Hannah about her personal wealth, her family and whether anyone else lived in her house. They encouraged her to exchange her own money for some of the Singapore dollars, saying she would make a handsome profit and also be helping charitable causes. The older man convinced her by saying he would exchange Rp25 million of his own money.

The tycoon showed Hannah some high-denomination Singapore banknotes. Singapore issues notes from just S$2 all the way to S$1,000 and S$10,000. The man said his S$1,000 Singapore banknotes were each worth Rp10 million (US$690).

He offered Hannah 13 of his S$500 banknotes (a total of S$6,500) in return for just Rp40 million – an absurdly generous exchange rate, as S$6,500 is worth Rp69 million.

Hannah agreed to the exchange but she was not carrying much money, so the gang drove to her house. She rushed inside and grabbed her bank savings passbook, her ATM card and her ID card. Her son, Abdul Kholik (40), was at home but she did not stop to talk to him.

Back in the car, they started driving to a bank when Hannah realised she had forgotten her personal identification number, so the gang drove back to her house so she could find it. She was then driven to a branch of Bank Rakyat Indonesia in Cipulir neighbourhood of Kebayoran Lama in South Jakarta. Inside the bank, accompanied by the “businessman”, she withdrew Rp40 million.

They re-entered the car and made the exchange. Hannah was then dropped off at a roadside and given Rp300,000 to get a taxi home.

At home, she joyously informed her son of her good fortune in being able to make some money while helping the poor. He was suspicious and later discovered the banknotes were from an old series that had been withdrawn from circulation and were no longer valid.

Hannah’s daughter Nuril Farah Dhiyah (24) later went to the bank and obtained closed circuit television footage of the scam taking place. She uploaded the footage to her Instagram account and warned people about the scam. She said the “Singaporean” had also persuaded her mother to give them two of her gold rings “as a memento” in exchange for another two banknotes. She said the rings were worth about Rp5 million.

Hannah later described the bogus oil businessman as being tall, slightly plump, with light skin and narrow eyes. She said she had been hypnotised when the man repeatedly tapped on her leg while she was in the gang’s car.

Second Victim
On July 17, just one day after Hannah was fleeced, members of the gang struck again. This time, the victim was Sumini (58). She was walking near her house in Lenteng Agung, South Jakarta, when she was approached by a charming man claiming to be an oil tycoon from Singapore.

He spun a similar story about needing help to find an address so he could exchange a suitcase full of foreign currency for rupiah to be donated to charities. Next, a woman came along and joined the conversation. She encouraged Sumini to help the man.

Then the car appeared. The woman said it belonged to her husband, a bank worker. She told Sumini and the businessman to enter the car with her, so they could go to the bank and exchange the dollars.

Sumini was questioned about her family and her savings. She initially handed over her jewellery for 20 of the banknotes. Then, instead of going to a bank, they drove to her house, where she opened a safe and handed over Rp11 million, more jewellery and some gold. All up, she gave the man about Rp70 million in cash and valuables.

Police Appeal
When Hannah and her children reported the case to police, they presented evidence including CCTV footage, Singapore dollars, Russian roubles and an apparently bogus business card in the name of Mr. Salim Anan Brother with an office address in Singapore and the Shell oil company logo.

Nuril said that after she uploaded footage of the scam to Instagram, several people contacted her, all claiming to be victims of the same scam. She said all of them were middle-aged or older, and most were women.

Jakarta Police spokesman Argo Yuwono said the case was under investigation. He appealed to any more victims of the scam to report to police.

Life Savings for Noodles
In an even more brazen scam, a group of three Chinese citizens and three Indonesians posed as spiritual gurus with the power to prevent disasters. Operating from malls in North Jakarta, they would convince people to visit a high priest’s house. The phony priest told victims they would soon suffer from a terrible calamity unless they handed over their valuables for a ritual cleansing. One victim in late March went all the way back to his home in Bali, collected his worldly valuables, returned to Jakarta in early April and handed over Rp500 million in cash and jewellery. This was taken to a room and magically washed, then handed back in a heavily-wrapped package, which the man was told not to open for three days. Upon opening the package, he found four packets of Indomie instant noodles. Curried chicken flavour.

Victims of such scams invariably insist they were hypnotised. The fact is, they were hoodwinked because they were either gullible or greedy or fearful. Hypnotism is impossible when people are sufficiently astute to exercise critical and sceptical thinking. Just because someone claims they are doing something in the name of religion doesn’t necessarily mean it is true.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.