58 arrested in the Philippines over global 'sextortion' network: Interpol

Posed photo of a man looking at a sexily dressed woman on a computer screen. Fifty-eight people have been arrested in the Philippines for their involvement in a giant, global Internet "sextortion" network, the local police and Interpol announced
Posed photo of a man looking at a sexily dressed woman on a computer screen. Fifty-eight people have been arrested in the Philippines for their involvement in a giant, global Internet "sextortion" network, the local police and Interpol announced in a joint press conference on Friday. -- NP FILE PHOTO: MOHD ISHAK

MANILA (AFP) - Fifty-eight people have been arrested in the Philippines for their involvement in a giant, global Internet "sextortion" network, the local police and Interpol announced in a joint press conference on Friday.

Victims in foreign countries have been lured by people in the Philippines into giving sexually explicit photos or videos about themselves online, then blackmailed for many thousands of dollars, the authorities said.

“The scale of this extortion network is massive,” the director of Interpol’s Digital Crime Centre, Sanjay Virmani said. “These crimes are not limited to any one country and nor are the victims. That’s why international cooperation in investigating these crimes is essential.”

Philippine police chief Alan Purisima said the 58 people arrested would be charged over a range of crimes, including engaging in child pornography, extortion and using technologies to commit fraud. 

It was not immediately clear whether all 58 arrested were Filipinos, although the authorities initially made no mention of any foreigners who may have been directly involved in the Philippines.

However, the authorities emphasised the Philippines was not the hub of the global sextortion network, only that the current investigation had focused on the South-east Asian nation.

“These crimes are not limited to any one country and nor are the victims. That’s why international cooperation in investigating these crimes is essential,” Interpol’s Virmani said.

Mr Purisima said the scam typically involved someone posing as an attractive, young lady making contact with people overseas via Facebook and other social media, then seeking to establish a relationship with them.

“After getting acquainted with the victims... they engage in cybersex, and this will be recorded unknown to the victims,” he said.

“They then threaten to release it to friends and relatives.” He said victims had paid between 500 pesos (S$14) and 500,000 pesos.While he said elderly men were often targeted, children were also victims.

A Scottish police chief who also briefed reporters at the press conference said one boy in Scotland had committed suicide after being extorted.

He said the boy was 17 when he killed himself.

More than 530 people in Hong Kong, many aged between 20 and 30, have fallen victim to the scam since the beginning of last year, according to Chief Inspector Louis Kwan, from the Chinese territory’s police commercial crime bureau.

Insp Kwan said Hong Kong victims had paid up to US$15,000 in desperate attempts to keep the sexually compromising material private.

But, once hooked, the victims sometimes found they could not escape.

Insp Kwan said some victims paid up to three times before going to the police, “when they realised they could no longer afford to continue paying”.Mr Purisima said the authorities from the United States, Hong Kong, Interpol, Scotland, Singapore and Australia last year established “Operation Strikeback", which led to the 58 arrests.

“Operation Strikeback highlights international cooperation and coordination in dealing with cybercrime,” Mr Purisima said.

The joint taskforce was created at an Interpol meeting to tackle the “growing number of sextortion victims in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States", according to Mr Purisima.He said the taskforce was also focused on potential victims in Australia, South Korea and Malaysia, although other authorities at the press conference also said that people anywhere in the world with Internet access could be targeted.