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Singapore warns of scammers taking advantage of fears

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Visitors wear protective face masks at the Marina Bay waterfront in Singapore on January 26, 2020.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

The Singapore government is warning of scams made under the pretext of investigations linked to confirmed cases of coronavirus, as the city-state seeks to contain the spread of the deadly virus.

Scammers have reportedly been calling people to ask for financial details under the pretext of “contact tracing” — the process of identifying those with close contact with infected patients. People who have been identified are closely monitored for symptoms and tests for signs of infection.

Singapore has set up teams working to call people and establish if anyone has had prolonged physical contact with coronavirus patients. It is a way of limiting the spread of the infection, which has killed more than 1,000 people in China.

As of Thursday noon, Singapore confirmed 58 known cases of the coronavirus strain, recently named the COVID-19. The Ministry of Health (MOH) said 15 people have so far been discharged.

Singapore’s Ministry of Health said in a Facebook post last week that it would never ask for financial details during the calls.

“MOH is conducting contact tracing to identify individuals who had close contact with the confirmed cases of novel coronavirus. Please note that we do not ask for any financial details during our call to you,” said the health authority.

The city-state’s police force reinforced the message in another Facebook post.

“No government agency will request for personal details or transfer of money over the phone or through automated voice machines,” said the Singapore Police Force.

At least one bank has warned users of possible scams. United Overseas Bank, one of the major banks in Singapore, sent alerts to its customers that warned: “Beware of scammers pretending to be from the MOH conducting contact tracing. UOB or the government agencies will never ask for your banking details.”

The new strain of coronavirus, which emerged in late December last year, is believed to have originated from the city of Wuhan in central China.

Last Friday, Singapore raised its risk assessment of the outbreak to the second highest level of alert as the number of confirmed cases continued to climb daily.

The Southeast Asian nation — with a population of 5.7 million — has one of the highest numbers of cases outside China.

On Friday, a Singapore official told CNBC the nation must be prepared that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases could climb in the coming weeks.

“I think it’s really too early to talk about a peak. Cases are coming in on a daily basis and you have to have the expectation there are going to be more cases over the next few weeks,” Janil Puthucheary, senior minister of state at Singapore’s Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Communications and Information.

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TikTok transparency report shows it removed 49 million videos

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TikTok removed over 49 million videos for content violations in just six months, according to the company’s latest transparency report, published Thursday. 

Less than 1% of all videos published on the platform are removed for content violations, TikTok said, in what is its second transparency report. 

India, where the app was banned last week, had 16.5 million videos removed, which is roughly four times more than any other country. 

The U.S., which is “looking at” banning the app, had the second most videos removed with 4.6 million. Pakistan ranked third (3.7 million), the U.K. was in fourth (2 million), and Russia was in fifth (1.3 million).  

Globally, the main reason for removal was “adult nudity and sexual activities,” with one in four of the deleted videos removed for this reason in December. 

Other reasons included alcohol and drug taking, violence, self-harm or suicide. Less than 1% of the videos removed violated TikTok’s polices on hate speech, integrity and authenticity, and dangerous individuals and organizations. 

Of the videos removed, TikTok said 89.4% were taken down before they received any views. 

TikTok refused to disclose how many were taken down by human moderators and how many were removed by the company’s software. 

Owned by China’s ByteDance, the short video app said that it had 500 requests from governments and law enforcement agencies in 26 countries during the second half of 2019. That’s up 67% on the first half of the year, when it received 298. 

India, which was TikTok’s largest market in terms of user numbers, made 302 requests, and TikTok shared data in 90% of those cases. The U.S. made 100,  and TikTok shared data in 82% of those cases. Elsewhere, Japan made 16, Germany made 15, Norway made 10, and the U.K. made 10. 

“Any information request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency to determine, for example, whether the requesting entity is authorized to gather evidence in connection with a law enforcement investigation or to investigate an emergency involving imminent harm,” TikTok said in the report. 

Governments requested content be removed on 45 separate occasions but TikTok did not comply with all of those. The bulk of the requests (30) came from India. 

“If we believe that a report isn’t legally valid or doesn’t violate our standards, we may not action the content,” TikTok said. 

The report states that TikTok did not receive any user information or content removal requests from China or Hong Kong. In fact, China doesn’t get mentioned in the report at all. That could be because ByteDance operates a clone of TikTok in China called Douyin so any government requests are likely to be filed there instead.

TikTok isn’t available for download in China and a spokesperson for the company wasn’t immediately available to clarify whether requests to Douyin would be in a separate report.

TikTok has launched “trust and safety hubs” in Dublin, Singapore and Mountain View, California, as part of an effort to provide a more local approach to content moderation. 

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German prosecutors probe Wirecard for money laundering

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The lettering of the payment service provider Wirecard can be seen on a laptop screen

Silas Stein | picture alliance | Getty Images

German state prosecutors are investigating Wirecard for suspected money laundering, a spokeswoman for the Munich prosecutor’s office said on Thursday.

“We are investigating suspected money laundering,” the spokeswoman told Reuters, saying the inquiry was directed at individuals from Wirecard. She said it followed a number of criminal complaints this year and last.

Wirecard declined to comment.

The implosion of what was seen as a German success story once worth $28 billion has caused major embarrassment with experts and politicians criticising what they see as a hands-off approach on the part of the authorities.

Wirecard filed for insolvency last month owing creditors almost $4 billion after disclosing a 1.9 billion euro ($2.1 billion) hole in its accounts that its auditor EY said was the result of a sophisticated global fraud.

Wirecard started out handling payments for gambling and adult websites and now processes payments for companies including Visa and Mastercard.

Some of the world’s biggest investors held its shares before a whistleblower said it owed its success to a web of sham transactions.

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Airborne transmission of coronavirus in restaurants, gyms and other closed spaces can’t be ruled out, WHO says

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A member of Driving Force Crossfit Gym lifts a dumbbell during a socially distanced workout class on July 08, 2020 in Pembroke Pines, Florida.

Johnny Louis | Getty Images

The World Health Organization published new guidance Thursday, saying it can’t rule out the possibility that the coronavirus can be transmitted through air particles in closed spaces indoors, including in gyms and restaurants.

The WHO previously acknowledged that the virus may become airborne in certain environments, such as during “medical procedures that generate aerosols.” The new guidance recognizes some research that suggests the virus may be able to spread through particles in the air in “indoor crowded spaces.” It cited “choir practice, in restaurants or in fitness classes” as possible areas of airborne transmission.

“In these events, short-range aerosol transmission, particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out,” the United Nations health agency’s new guidance says. 

The WHO said in its guidance that while early evidence suggests the possibility of airborne transmission in such environments, spread by droplets and surfaces could also explain transmission in those cases.

“However, the detailed investigations of these clusters suggest that droplet and fomite transmission could also explain human-to-human transmission within these clusters,” the guidance says.

The WHO added that more research is needed to further investigate preliminary findings. The agency says the main mode of transmission is still believed to be through respiratory droplets.

The new guidance comes after 239 scientists from 32 different countries published an open letter earlier this week calling for the WHO and other health authorities to update their information on the coronavirus.

In an article entitled “It is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19,” the group of scientists contend that the WHO needs to give more weight to the role of the airborne spread of Covid-19. 

On Tuesday, top WHO officials told reporters they were reviewing the latest evidence and collaborating with the broader scientific community to issue new guidance on what is currently known about whether and how easily the virus spreads by air. 

“The body of evidence continues to grow and we adapt,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, said Tuesday. “We take this very seriously. We are of course focused on public health guidance.”

Some scientists have criticized the WHO for being slow to issue guidance on the latest research into the coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, a little over six months ago. The WHO has defended its guidance, saying that it’s transparent about its review process and applies healthy skepticism to research that has not been peer-reviewed.

On some days, the WHO reviews up to 1,000 publications, Swaminathan said Tuesday. A typical day might mean WHO researchers are combing through about 500 new studies on topics ranging from how the virus spreads to drugs to treat Covid-19.

If airborne transmission proves to be a major factor in the spread of the outbreak, it could have wide-ranging policy consequences. Masks may prove to be even more important in reducing infections, especially in indoor environments and even in areas where physical distancing is possible. Specially outfitted ventilation units could become the norm in indoor spaces, public health experts have said.

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