Philippines warns no let-up against 'sextortion' syndicates

Philippine police chief of cyber crime division Gilbert Sosa (centre) answers questions from members of the media, while Philippine police chief Alan Purisima (left) and US ICE, HSI attache William Wallwrapp listen, during a press conferenc
Philippine police chief of cyber crime division Gilbert Sosa (centre) answers questions from members of the media, while Philippine police chief Alan Purisima (left) and US ICE, HSI attache William Wallwrapp listen, during a press conference at the police headquarters in Manila on May 2, 2014. The Philippine government has warned criminal groups involved in online "sextortion" activities that authorities will go after them. -- PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippine government has warned criminal groups involved in online "sextortion" activities that authorities will go after them.

Fifty-eight people - all Filipinos and mostly men - were arrested in simultaneous operations in northern Philippines on April 30 for their alleged involvement in industrial-style businesses that blackmailed hundreds of people around the world, luring them on social media before extracting sexually explicit information or images from them.

"The apprehension of the 58 suspects allegedly involved in sextortion activities is a product of our continued coordination with other law enforcement agencies like the Interpol (International Police). We hope that this sends a strong message that we do not tolerate exploitation in our shores," Xinhua news agency quoted Deputy Presidential spokesman Abigail Valte as saying on Saturday.

She reminded Filipinos to be aware of the modus operandi to avoid falling victim to such activities, said the Xinhua report.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Philippine police chief Alan Purisima as saying the 58 people detained would be charged with a range of crimes, including engaging in child pornography, extortion and using technologies to commit fraud.

Mr Purisima said the scam typically involved the extorters creating fake identities of attractive, young women to make contact with people overseas via Facebook and other social media.

"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."

Blackmail demands ranged from US$500 to US$15,000 (S$630 to S$18,800), according to Interpol, which described extremely well-run businesses controlled by organised crime gangs, said AFP.

Scammers targeted people of varying ages in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Singapore, the United States, Australia and Scotland in the last three to four years.

Mr Sanjay Virmani, director of Interpol's Singapore-based Digital Crime Centre, said "sextortion" had emerged as a major concern in recent years as criminals took advantage of more people using social media and greater mobile Internet access. "This is just a taste of things to come," he added.

The 58 people were arrested in simultaneous operations in Bicol Region, and provinces of Laguna and Bulacan, and Taguig City in Metro Manila on April 30. Authorities also confiscated 250 pieces of electronic devices, such as mobile phones, laptops, desktop computers, cameras and several automated-teller machine (ATM) cards, allegedly used by the suspects in their illegal activities.