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Singapore tells its people: Go forth and block those ads

As it preps to launch WhatsApp scam-shredder

The government of Singapore issued its populace a recommendation for ad blockers this month, calling them “underrated scam protectors” that sieve out fraudulent online ads.

“As its name suggests, ad blockers prevent ads from appearing when you are surfing the internet. Many scams that are posing as innocuous ads will thus not cross your screen at all,” read a notice on the website of GovTech, the statutory board responsible for the city-state’s public digital services.

An extra benefit, said the org, was faster web page load time and reduced data usage “because you’re not wasting bandwidth loading ads,” as well as the added perk of privacy.

Of course, don't forget these ad-blocking tools come with features to whitelist adverts on your favorite, trusted websites, cough.

Singapore isn’t the first and only government to advocate ad blockers. Similar advice was issued in a public service announcement from the FBI at the end of last year, surely to the dismay of internet publishers. Especially reputable internet publishers who have an in-house team that polices the ads shown, cough, splutter.

Scams in Singapore led to losses exceeding $494 million (SG$660 million) in 2022, a four percent uptick from $473 million (SG$632 million) in 2021, according to the city-state's government. More than half of the victims last year were between the ages of 20 and 39, with the largest chunk of the scammed cohort falling prey to job-related swindles, we're told.

The government has made efforts to squash scams with a program called ScamShield, ongoing since 2020. The program uses a mobile app that checks calls from unknown numbers against a Singapore Police Force database and blocks numbers known to be affiliated with scams. The database is aided by crowdsourcing as marks log fradusters' phone numbers via an online form.

ScamShield also includes an on-device algorithm that checks for dodgy SMSes, banishes them away to a junk folder for iOS users and issues a warning label to Android users.

GovTech said by August 2022 it had blocked around 200,000 scam calls and detected 3.5 million scam messages. This year, it is expanding the program to protect against the weaponization of Meta-owned WhatsApp.

Users can upload screenshots or copy and paste suspicious links into a ScamShield chatbot to check its legitimacy.

WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging application, and according to Statista, it boasts over two billion monthly active users.

The number of WhatsApp users in the United States lags behind that of other countries, particularly in Asia and Europe. WhatsApp is reportedly used by 19 percent of the population in the US. Comparatively, more than a third of India’s population, which represents over half of its internet user base, use the messaging service.

In Singapore, with its high internet penetration, WhatsApp is the most used social app. Singapore's cops said they found over half of scam cases that used a messaging platform involved a scammer contacting their victim via WhatsApp. ®

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