Police in Jakarta have busted a syndicate that tricked parents into believing their children had been involved in accidents, requiring the immediate transfer of funds for emergency surgery.
The scam of claiming that a family member has suffered an accident and urgently needs an operation has been doing the rounds in Indonesia since at least 2005. Its success depends on people being so concerned about saving the life of a loved one that they put scepticism aside.
Prime targets are parents of school children. Pulling off the scam requires elaborate research, as well as expertise in playing the parts of education officials, teachers, hospital staff, bank staff and children.
Here’s how the scam works. First, one or two members of a gang will pose as senior members of a municipal Education Department and contact schools, requesting student lists and parents’ telephone numbers. Armed with this information, the gang then tries to identify the wealthy families.
The scam calls are invariably made during school hours. Posing as a teacher or a school security officer, one scammer will claim the child has been hit by a car or suffered some other serious accident. The “teacher” then gives the alarmed parent the mobile number of another “teacher”, who has accompanied the child to hospital. When the parent calls this number, the next gang member describes the child’s injuries and the situation at the hospital’s emergency ward. In the background, another accomplice pretends to be a child crying and moaning in agony.
Next, the “teacher” gives the phone to a “doctor”, who outlines the severity of the injury – such as a brain haemorrhage. The “doctor” explains that surgery must be conducted immediately to save the child, but the hospital first requires a payment of at least Rp.5 million (US$370). Yet another member of the gang takes over the phone conversation, posing as a hospital administrator to give the number of a bank account for a transfer.
The gang tries to escalate the anxiety of the parent and keep them on the phone, on the pretext of providing updates, until the money has been transferred.
Once a payment is made, some gangs request additional sums, claiming there are complications, so the hospital needs to purchase special medical equipment to save the child’s life. Parents are then given the number of a “pharmacist”, who can sell the apparatus.
If a parent hangs up and contacts the school or hospital for confirmation, they will realize they were being duped.
In late October, the parents of a student at Malaka Jaya State Elementary School in Duren Sawit, East Jakarta, received a call at 9:45am from someone claiming to be a teacher. He said their son had fallen from a ladder and was unconscious. The “teacher” instructed the parents to call another “teacher”, who had rushed the child to a hospital. The parents complied and were told their son required emergency surgery for a brain haemorrhage. Next, they spoke to a “doctor at a private hospital”. He told them to transfer Rp.9 million immediately to have necessary surgical equipment brought to the hospital. At this point, the parents decided to the visit the school for more information. Staff informed them their child was fine and still in class.
Rahmat, a security guard at the school, said it was the fourth time in a month the scam had been attempted there.
In Riau, a man was tricked into transferring Rp.20 million after being told his son was bleeding out of his ear as a result of a fall down some stairs.
On November 3, police raided three units at the Cibubur Village Apartment complex, east of Jakarta, arresting eight members of a gang that had been conducting the “injured child phone call” scam since 2011. Two more members were arrested a week later. The gang’s leader was identified as Amril (31).
Police spokesman Budi Herman said the gang was smoothly structured and each member had a special role. Some were expert voice actors, handling the phone calls, while others posed as education officials to obtain lists of names and numbers, and two handled the finances and provision of new SIM cards. Police said the group used jimat (talismans) for successful operations. Talismans are, of course, absolute nonsense, but can give confidence to people who believe in lucky charms.
Budi said the gang had tricked hundreds of people over the years, from Jakarta to West Nusa Tenggara, but only about 80 cases were reported to police. Each month, the group reaped about Rp.50 million to Rp.100 million.
The gang would usually target parents of private school students, trying to get them to pay as much as Rp.20 million. But if pickings were lean, they would contact parents of state school students and try to get at least Rp.5 million.
The ten suspects face four years in jail for fraud and a maximum of 20 years for money laundering, relating to the ill-gotten transfers. Budi said the gang “must be eradicated from its roots” lest it engage in more scams.
He urged parents who receive scam calls not to panic. He said they should instead hang up and call the school or the hospital intensive care unit in question, while anyone who falls for the fraud should contact police. Authorities have advised schools to put up banners advising parents not to fall for phone scams. Schools should also ensure they do not hand over lists of students and contact details for parents.
Sometimes, scammers mess up, confusing the numbers of parents and children. In Cibubur, a 13-year-old junior high school student was surprised to receive a call on his mobile phone, telling him that he was in a critical condition in hospital. The caller asked him, “Why aren’t you reacting? Why aren’t you worried about your son?” The boy explained the mix-up and the caller hung up.
Some scammers don’t bother to collect lists of names and numbers, but instead rely on simple cold-reading techniques to get respondents to give away the name and age of children. For example, a caller may begin by saying, “This is Mr Agus from the school board. Your child has been in an accident.” The parent replies, “Oh God, how is Anton? Is he OK?” The caller can then start using the child’s name to escalate the parent’s anxiety.
Another scam involves calling parents of older teenagers at night, claiming a child has been arrested for drugs and can be released only if funds are transferred. In one case, a woman was told her son would face a long stretch in jail if she failed to pay off police. She had to explain that her son was still a baby.
Police have said such scams could be reduced if sales of SIM cards were more tightly controlled, as officers could more easily trace scammers.
If you are a parent, try to avoid making any emergency transfers while in a state of panic, even if the caller knows your name and the name of your child.