Global online ‘sextortion’ racket busted; 58 arrested

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Fifty-eight people have been arrested in the Philippines for their involvement in a giant, global Internet “sextortion” network, local police and Interpol announced in a joint news conference on Friday.

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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 Center, 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 National Police (PNP) 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.

Authorities emphasized that the Philippines was not the hub of the global sextortion network, only that the current investigation had focused on the Southeast Asian nation.

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 added.

“They then threaten to release it to friends and relatives,” Purisima said.

Victims had paid between P500 and P500,000, according to the PNP chief.

While he said elderly men were often targeted, children were also victims.

A statement from the PNP’s Anti-Cybercrime Group, headed by Sr. Supt. Gilbert Sosa, said the suspects were arrested on April 30 in simultaneous operations in
the Bicol region, Laguna and Bulacan provinces and Taguig City (Metro Manila), which also led to the seizure of 250 pieces of electronic evidence.

The multinational dragnet, named Oplan “Strike Back,” involved agents from the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission and Department of Justice, representatives from Scotland Yard, the Hong Kong and Singapore police, US Homeland Security Investigation, Child Exploitation Online Protection and the Australian federal police, a statement said.

Strike Back was hatched after the 1st Interpol Eurasian Working Group Meeting in Singapore in November 2013, which underscored “the growing number of ‘sextortion’ victims in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, United Kingdom and the United States with potential victims in Australia, [South] Korea and Malaysia.”

This was followed by a second “operation meeting,” also in Singapore, last March, which was participated in by representatives of payment systems and the judiciary.

The group said 52 suspects were arrested in Bicol, three in Bulacan and three in Laguna and Bulacan.

The statement named those nabbed in Laguna and Taguig City as Vincent Regori Bravo, Archie Tolinalias “Gian,” and Jomar Palacio alias “Park Ji Man.”

Arrested in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, were Aldrin Villamonte, Jemuel Matuguina and Emuross dela Cruz.

The group described the suspects in Bicol as “an organized group” that operated under the cover of several firms—“MoneyMaker Portal Web Solutions” in Naga City, Moneymagnet Portal Web Solutions in Libmanan, Money Builder Web Marketing Solutions in Nabua and Mocha Bytes Web Solutions in Legazpi City.

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

He said the boy was 17 when he killed himself.

AFP and Anthony Vargas

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