Inspector Yang Il-mo says he knew something was up when a man with a strange accent asked him to empty his life savings and put it all in his refrigerator.
It was Friday morning, and Yang was at his desk at the Seoul Seobu Police Station’s Major Crimes Unit when he received a telephone call. He said someone on the other line claimed to be from Korea Telecom (KT), a major telecommunications provider in South Korea.
“I was flustered at first. They said I had an unpaid bill,” Yang told CNN.
What followed was allegedly a criminal enterprise’s attempt to steal thousands of dollars from Yang in a voice phishing scam — whereby con artists dupe their victims into revealing personal or confidential information over the phone, which is then used to defraud them.
More than 31,000 phone scams were reported in South Korea from January until October this year, costing the public some 504.4 billion Korean won ($429 million).
Unfortunately for the accused in Yang’s case, an actual police officer appears to have been randomly called. A 34-year-old Chinese national has since been arrested on charges of fraud, accused of participating in an international phone scam targeting random individuals.
Yang said that after informing him of the overdue bill, the caller then warned his identity may have been stolen.
The inspector was eventually transferred to a man who claimed to be a detective with the International Crimes Unit, about a 20-minute drive away from Seobu Police Station.
Yang said he expected foul play the moment he noticed the officer was more verbose than a regular investigator and spoke with a foreign accent. His suspicions appeared to be confirmed the moment the caller started putting in strange requests.
“They asked me how much money I had in my account. I told them I have about 11 million won ($9,400). So they said take out all of it and leave it in the fridge so they can come and inspect it for irregularities then return it to me. They asked for my apartment entrance code too,” Yang said.
Yang decided to try and catch the caller. So he went to the bank to convince the individual on the phone that he was following directions and withdrawing money.
At the bank, Yang showed the teller his police badge and a note that read: “I’m investigating a voice phishing case, please play along.”
Yang then had the teller turn on a bill counter so the sound could be heard through the phone — an attempt to convince the caller that he had made the withdrawal.
Yang told the man that he left the money in the fridge in an apartment in Seoul’s Eunpyeong-gu district. Later that day, a Chinese national showed up at the flat and was arrested. He has since been charged with fraud.
Yang said it appears the individual who is accused of coming to pick up the money was not the one on the phone, but rather an alleged participant in an international scheme that is believed to be based in China.
It’s unlikely police will investigate further, Yang said.
A growing problem
Phone scams like this have become increasingly common in South Korea, according to the country’s national police.
Authorities say some of the schemes have become increasingly complex, and many of the people who fall victim are younger and unsuspecting because they falsely believe that fraudsters only prey on the elderly.
“There are people who fall for these (schemes),” Yang said. “That’s why they do this.”