Monday 30 June 2014

$400,000 gone in a day

Elderly cleaner Goh Kah Keow, who was cheated of her life savings by con artists from China, was afraid of growing old with no money
By Bryna Singh, The Sunday Times, 29 Jun 2014

It took her more than 60 years of sweat and toil to squirrel away $400,000. But in less than half a day, Madam Goh Kah Keow, 74, lost her entire life savings to five con artists from China last November.

Her case hit the headlines about a week ago, after two of the five Chinese nationals were jailed more than eight years in total for their heartless scam. The other three grifters remain at large.

While many Singaporeans felt for Madam Goh, there were also those who wondered how an uneducated and unskilled worker came to have so much savings.

It was, ironically, a fear of growing old without a nest egg that led to her frugal and resilient ways, she tells SundayLife!.

"When I was very young, older people used to tell me that growing old without money was a terrible thing. That frightened me," recalls Madam Goh, who is single and lives alone in a studio flat in eastern Singapore.

That comment also propelled her to work hard. The third of seven siblings, Madam Goh says her family was too poor to send her to school.

From the tender age of 10, she started earning her own keep, first as a babysitter, then as a washer woman. She was also a factory worker for a while and took on a host of cleaning jobs.

"I worked so hard. I would work on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, I would try to pack in three different cleaning jobs one after another, just to earn extra cash," she says in Mandarin.

Multiple jobs aside, she would also collect newspapers to sell.

"I think I fell in love with money," says Madam Goh, who has never married. "I did not find any work tough. Everything that I could do with my hands to earn money, I did."

She would spend little of her earnings, saving between 50 and 70 per cent of her monthly pay. She now earns about $700 monthly as a part-time cleaner.

A resourceful woman, she would pick up pieces of discarded cloth from the factory she was working at and use them to sew curtains, pillowcases and cushion covers for herself. She also refused to buy clothes, preferring to make blouses and pants out of fabric scraps instead.

Over the years, her money slowly grew, kept in three savings accounts with three different banks, and then under three fixed deposit accounts.

Yet, she remained reluctant to spend her money.

"I would buy only necessities, and even then, I would wait until things were on discount," she says, sounding pleased with her thrifty ways.

She has never owned a passport because she does not believe in going overseas for holidays.

"So many people have slept on those hotel beds before. I don't want to sleep on them," she says.

She does not own a television set and goes to bed by 7pm so that she does not have to switch on any lights at home. She rarely eats out ("it's pricey"), preferring to cook simple meals of rice, fish and vegetables.

She has indulgences, though, such as the occasional Japanese cheesecake from Giant supermarket. Even then, she says: "I buy it only when it is on offer."

In the past year, she has also paid for regular massages for her rheumatic knees, which she says have been hurting of late. These cost about $40 a session.

For all her thriftiness, Madam Goh was generous and would often give money to beggars and anyone seeking donations.

She never imagined, however, that her kindness would be exploited one day.

"These people took money that I myself could not even bear to use," she laments.

The unfortunate day - Nov 20, 2013 - started out uneventfully like most of her days.

She was preparing to go for a knee massage after her shift as an office cleaner ended in the early afternoon, when Chinese national Li Lianying, 50, approached her in tears.

Li claimed that her daughter was in a Taiwan hospital with an incurable disease and asked Madam Goh if she knew a particular medium nearby who could help her.

"When I saw her sobbing so painfully, my heart went soft. I wanted to help her," says Madam Goh.

An accomplice of Li joined them, claiming to know the medium Li was looking for and offered to take them to him.

A third woman, posing as the medium's granddaughter, approached them and told Madam Goh that she was possessed by an evil spirit. But what really shook Madam Goh was how this stranger seemed to know about her life.

"She said I was single and that I had a tough life. Those were all true. She also said that the spirit was single and wanted to latch on to me. If I did not do what it asked, it would allow me to be knocked down by a car, causing me to be paralysed," she recalls.

"I imagined myself bleeding and paralysed and I was so afraid. How would I be able to walk about or earn money anymore? They really got to my heart."

Out of fear, she agreed to do as told in order to rid herself of the spirit - take all her savings and jewellery for a prayer session.

"They told me to put it all into a bag and that after the session, I could deposit all my money back," she recounts.

But it was a lie. The con artists switched her bag for theirs and escaped with all her savings, two gold rings worth $100 and a pair of diamond earrings worth $1,000.

"This was the single most maddening event of my life. I cried for two weeks after that, then I stopped," she says. "Even if I continued to cry, the money would not be coming back to look for me. I wish the banks had stopped me from withdrawing all my money.

"I was going to use the money only when I stopped working. Luckily, I did not retire. With no more money, I can't stop working anyway," she says with a trace of bitterness.

She says she hates the perpetrators and would never want to see them ever again, especially Li.

"She cheated me with her tears. Because of what she did, I do not want to help anyone who approaches me again."

But the flash of anger fades just as quickly.

"I guess I just need to stay healthy and keep working."

More than seven months on, she can even make light of her plight.

Breaking into a smile, she reasons: "I just tell myself that the money did not like being locked up. It wanted to go on a plane to China."

Cleaner cheated of $400,000: More than 70 readers offer to help
By Bryna Singh, The Sunday Times, 6 Jul 2014

More than 70 people who read about how Madam Goh Kah Keow was cheated of her life savings by con artists have come forward to help the cleaner.

Most of them offered to donate money to the 74-year-old, who was swindled of about $400,000 in cash and jewellery by five China nationals last November.

Two of the five suspects have since been sentenced to jail for more than eight years for the scam. The other three remain at large.

Madam Goh never married, lives alone in a studio flat and leads a frugal life. She would even, for example, go to bed by 7pm to save on her utility bills.

She started earning her own keep from the tender age of 10; first as a babysitter, then as a washerwoman. She was also a factory worker for a while and took on a host of cleaning jobs.

"I would work on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, I would try to pack in three different cleaning jobs one after another, just to earn extra cash," she said.

She now works part-time for two cleaning companies and earns $700 a month.

Her story in last weekend's SundayLife! was shared more than 26,500 times on Facebook. Many also wrote in to The Straits Times to say their hearts went out to her.

Besides offering cash - one couple sent a cheque for $1,000 for Madam Goh - and groceries, five readers also said they wanted to pay for her massage sessions. This after they read that Madam Goh had rheumatic knees, which needed regular therapy that cost $40 for each session.

Said web designer Dennis Lim, 35: "I've seen my grandmother and mother suffer from bad knees, so I felt it was only right to try and pay for Madam Goh's massage bills."

Initially, Madam Goh declined the help and donations. "If I take the money, I have no way of repaying their kindness - I don't want that," she said, adding that she was also afraid that "people may take my money again".

She did, however, change her mind a few days later, after speaking to her elder sister and a friend, who encouraged her to accept the help.

"They told me not to be afraid and take the money because I am already so old," she said in Mandarin. "How many more years can I keep on working?"

Madam Goh told The Sunday Times that she is resigned to not getting her money back.

Her greatest fear now is dying at home alone and penniless.

One of her friends, Ms Linda Tan, 50, however, promised Madam Goh that she would not let that happen.

"I've known her for more than 20 years and she's like a mother to me, said Ms Tan. "I see it as my duty to take care of her."

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