Women trapped into being loan shark runners
At first glance, she'd look like any working professional on Shenton Way - neatly dressed in office attire with perfectly manicured nails and a pair of boots.
But open her designer sling bag, and instead of make-up, you would find markers, a packet of wet tissues, four mobile phones, a tablet, bicycle chains and padlocks.
And sometimes, a wig or two.
"Tools of the trade," says the former loan shark runner who agreed to this interview on condition that we do not use her real name.
She took us through what she once used to get the job done: The boots make for easy walking and the wigs help throw people off her track.
Jane, who is in her 20s, adds in fluent English: "For that matter, the whole appearance is a perfect disguise for the job - harassing debtors so they would pay up their loans."
She says that when she was "previously active", she often came across other women runners who did not look like the usual suspects.
Like in the case of Liu Yimin Lynnette, 28, who was charged in court on Jan 10.
When police first released her photo in an appeal looking for the woman in a case of loan shark harassment, it created a stir on social media.
Her mother reportedly turned the young woman in after she read the news.
Liu faces seven charges of splashing red paint on doors and pasting envelopes with "O$P$", the unit numbers of the borrowers and a mobile number on the walls beside the units.
She was allegedly involved in cases of loan shark harassment between
last November and January in areas such as Jurong East, Bukit Batok, Pasir Ris and Sembawang.
NOT FIRST, NOT LAST
Jane knows she is "not the first and definitely not the last" woman runner involved in loan shark activities.
Three in 10 people arrested for unlicensed moneylending activities between September and December last year were women.
The figure does not include those who were arrested this month.
Jane says: "Who says that runners must be men?
"Some of us (women) are forced to become runners because of our father, husband or boyfriend.
"They borrow money, they don't pay and we end up being the scapegoats."
Jane, who served time and was released in 2012, was arrested when one of the loan sharks she worked for was busted.
In her case, her father was the one who incurred debts that started with "just a couple of thousands" but soon snowballed to more than $20,000, including interest.
"He was gambling like nobody's business instead of driving his cab," she says angrily.
"As the only child, I don't have a choice, right? The last straw was when they splashed blotches of red paint on his rented taxi."
Her mother has long been estranged from them because of her father's gambling habits.
After much persuasion, Jane shares her modus operandi when she was a runner.
"I was usually given the 'white' (for white-collar professionals) list to work on."
She claims that her debt recovery rate was "a good 90 per cent", of which she would receive a cut of up to 40 per cent of the recovered sum.
Instead of targeting the debtors' homes, Jane would turn up at their work premises.
She says: "Unlike most runners, I worked office hours. I'd walk into an office and play the role of a spurned mistress looking for her lover.
"Sometimes, I'd even pretend to be pregnant.
"The trick usually worked because the sympathy vote would go to me and the men were forced to come out to see me. Often, the men would cooperate for fear of losing their jobs."
Jane says she opted for the passive-aggressive approach first because "it is easier (for the men) to lose their jobs over money issues, than affairs".
"And the last thing I want them to do is to lose their jobs. How would I have been able to recover the debts if that had happened?"
She also feels that women runners face less risk of a confrontation turning nasty as "men don't usually lay hands on women".
Jane says: "But I still don't think anyone should turn into a runner, however desperate the situation gets."
And with a prison record, it has been difficult looking for a proper job.
"Every time I come clean and tell the interviewer that I have been to jail, I don't hear from the company again," says the diploma-holder.
"Right now, I can only work part-time at a fast-food restaurant."
"Who says that runners must be men? Some of us (women) are forced to become runners because of our father, husband or boyfriend. They borrow money, they don't pay and we end up being the scapegoats."
- Former loan shark runner, Jane, who is in her 20s
Friend she helped sends her to jail
Mandy, not her real name, had become a guarantor for a friend.
When he did not pay up, the loan shark came after her and she was forced to become a runner.
And in the end, her friend turned her in and she ended up in jail for two years.
The 64-year-old housewife recalls how her life became hell in 2009 after she became a guarantor for five friends.
Mandy's friends had each borrowed $1,000 from a loan shark.
She says: "So, each of them had to pay an interest of $400 for the $1,000 they borrowed. This is cumulative if they don't repay on time."
They did not settle their debts but the loan shark waited a whole year before he took any action.
And he went after Mandy instead.
She was told: Get your friends to pay up or work as a runner to offset the loans.
It was that or he would go after her son. He did not elaborate on what that meant but it sent Mandy's imagination into overdrive.
Still, it took her a month before she agreed - a decision she kept from her family members.
Mandy started "work" in December 2011, working twice a week.
She says: "I was only told that part of the debt would be offset each time I carried out the work, but he didn't tell me what percentage that was."
She operated in Clementi, Tampines, Bedok and Toa Payoh.
The loan shark provided bicycle chains, padlocks, markers and a mobile phone.
She says: "These would be left in a plastic bag outside my home or the lift landing by other runners and I would be informed through SMS where to pick them up and where to go."
She says she "never threw paint".
"I used only permanent marker pens and wrote "O$P$" (short for "owe money, pay money") on the walls outside the debtors' flats and at the lift landings."
She also padlocked the gates with the bicycle chains and locks.
The loan shark also sent another runner to photograph her in action and the two would often drive to locations in a rental car, also provided by the loan shark.
Mandy says she was extremely stressed during this period.
"I often worried that there might be sick elderly in the flat I had just padlocked. What if they needed medical attention and could not get out?
"Or worse, what if there was a fire in the home and the gate was padlocked by me?"
There were times when she had toyed with the idea of throwing the spare key into the flats so they would be able to get out.
A month and a half after she started working for the loan shark, she was arrested. Mandy had padlocked one of her friend's flats - the same friend she stood as guarantor for - and he called the cops on her.
She says, with a sigh: "I thought I was discreet but soon after, I got an SMS from him and it read: 'I know it was you who padlocked my gate. Just wait for the police to call.'"
Soon after, she got a call on her mobile phone from someone who said he "wanted to pay her for work well done".
It was a police officer.
Mandy knew her game was up.
She says: "I was doing it to offset the debts, so why would I get paid?"
Still, she went to the meeting place and got arrested.
Mandy remembers how "they put the cuffs on me even before I could get off my motorcycle, before I could turn off the engine".
She spent the next 10 days in the lock-up while her family was clueless of whereabouts.
Her husband was livid when he found out, she says, but "he still posted my bail".
Mandy decided to cooperate with the police and it resulted in the arrest of the loan shark and 18 of his runners.
She spent 16 months in jail.
She says: "Prison is no place to be... Whether it is for a friend or even a loved one, don't ever agree to be a guarantor.
"You will merely be inviting trouble for yourself and your family."
"I thought I was discreet but soon after, I got an SMS from him and it read: ‘I know it was you who padlocked my gate. Just wait for the police to call."
— Mandy, who had padlocked one of her friend’s flats — the same friend she stood as guarantor for — and he called the cops on her
If a runner breaks the law...
The penalties for loan shark runners come under the Moneylenders Act, which was beefed up in 2010.
Under the revised law, even first-time offenders found guilty of loan shark harassment will be given at least three strokes of the cane.
Before that, only repeat offenders are mandatorily caned.
So, anyone found to act on behalf of an unlicensed moneylender by:
- Using threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour, writing or signs, or
- Causing alarm or annoyance to the borrower or surety, any member of their families, or any other person, will be jailed up to five years, fined up to $50,000 and caned up to six strokes.
The public can call the Police at 999 or the X-Ah Long hotline on 1800-924-5664 if they suspect anyone to be involved in illegal loan shark activities.