New wave of scams coming and world is unprepared, warns former Obama adviser

Cyber Security observer Philip Reiner said most people do not understand the significance of people’s lives shifting online. But criminals do.

David Sun and Christine Tan

David Sun and Christine Tan

The Straits Times


Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo, flanked by (left) Mr Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of police services at Interpol, and Mr Craig Jones, Interpol’s cybercrime director. PHOTO: INTERPOL/THE STRAITS TIMES

October 17, 2023

SINGAPORE – The world is going to see a new era of scams facilitated by new technologies, and the authorities are lagging behind, said a former White House adviser.

Mr Philip Reiner, who previously served as former US president Barack Obama’s senior director for South Asia at the National Security Council, said the world is not prepared for what is coming.

Now the chief executive of cyber-security think-tank Institute for Security and Technology, he told The Straits Times on Monday: “What’s coming is an entire era of fraud and scams and manipulation that we are not ready for, and it’s about to get way worse.”

He said this at the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation in Napier Road, on the sidelines of the inaugural Interpol Global Cybercrime Conference, which is being held from Sunday to Tuesday in Singapore.

Mr Reiner said people’s lives, communities and networks have shifted online, and most do not understand the significance of this.

He warned: “But the criminals understand it. They’re taking full advantage of it.”

About 170 participants from law enforcement, academia, international organisations and the private sector from 65 countries are attending the conference to coordinate the fight against cybercrime.

In her opening remarks at the event on Monday, Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said one area of weakness syndicates exploit is the different standards and processes on tracing and freezing illicit funds adopted by various countries.

Mrs Teo, who is also Minister for Communications and Information, noted that criminal proceeds are often transferred across countries very quickly, many times before the crime is even reported. But due to different procedures in different jurisdictions, cross-border asset recovery is very unlikely to bear fruit.

Globally, only 1 per cent of illicit assets has been recovered, while criminals have been able to keep the other 99 per cent, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Describing it as a “return on investment” that legitimate businesses can only dream about, Mrs Teo said: “As long as criminals get to retain most of their ill-gotten gains, I think it is very difficult to persuade them to stop.

“They won’t decide that there are other more productive ventures, unless we are able to show them that this is not something that will bear too much fruit for them.”

Between January 2020 and June 2023, scammers pocketed almost $1.9 billion from victims in Singapore.

The amount lost to scams dipped slightly in the first half of 2023 to $334.5 million, from $342.1 million during the same period in 2022.

Of this, at least $10 million was lost by 750 victims of malware scams.

A spike in such scams in July and August saw about 650 victims lose $10.6 million in the two months.

Mr Reiner said cyber criminals are becoming increasingly adept at scams, using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).

He cited how AI is being used to manipulate people’s voices to conduct impersonation scams and cheat parents of their money.

He added: “Your parents will give you anything, but your parents don’t know it’s not real.”

Mr Derek Manky, chief security strategist and vice-president of global threat intelligence at cyber-security company Fortinet, said cyber criminals are also becoming more organised.

Mr Manky, who was at the conference, said: “There’s been a big shift, particularly in the last three to four years. What we’re seeing with cybercrime, specifically now, is that they are operating much more at an enterprise level.”

He said this development is likely due to how profitable cybercrime has been, allowing such groups to invest time and money into reconnaissance and the weaponisation of their hacking code.

Mr Reiner is not optimistic about the situation, and expects a record-breaking number of ransomware attacks in 2023.

He said: “This actually may be the worst year globally, when it comes to the sheer volume of ransomware attacks, ever.”

According to the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore’s Singapore Cyber Landscape 2022 report, cyber-security vendors reported a 13 per cent increase in ransomware incidents worldwide in 2022.

Mr Stephen Kavanagh, executive director of police services at Interpol, said most people do not grasp the severity of cybercrime.

He added: “Too often, the media and those who are less informed don’t see broken windows. They don’t see people with severe injuries.

“But what we know is that the effects are profound. They’re not just about financial damage to banks and investments and individuals.

“The effects of cybercrime and its other manifestations are far-reaching and pervasive, and we know that they are going to accelerate with new technologies.”

Interpol’s cybercrime director, Mr Craig Jones, said it is a challenge to get countries to prioritise cybercrime compared with physical crime.

He said Interpol shines a light on cybercrime by collating the data of victims around the globe.

He added: “In the community, a (robbery) would set off alarm bells. On the flip side, if someone loses $20 in a scam, that’s not really going to get everybody running. But once you have a million people lose $20, that’s $20 million.”

Interpol’s first global crime trend report in 2022 identified cybercrime as one of the top five crimes in the world today.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the most common cybercrime trends include ransomware, phishing and online scams.

At this week’s conference, participants will discuss new types of cyber attacks and how to strengthen cross-sector collaboration in the fight against cybercrime.

Said Mr Kavanagh: “In a world where the nature of crime is ever-changing, it is our collective resilience that will pave the way for a safer world.”

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