MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine police arrested 44 foreigners who allegedly ran an online blackmail syndicate that defrauded victims in China and Taiwan by duping them into believing that their bank accounts have been used by money launderers or terrorists, police said Thursday.
The arrests of 42 Taiwanese and two Chinese suspects are the latest success scored by a Philippine government crackdown with help from Interpol and foreign governments but they also show how cybercrime groups have continued to flourish in the Philippines. In 2012, Philippine police arrested 380 suspected members of a blackmail syndicate, including 291 Taiwanese, 86 Chinese and a new Zealander in the largest number of single-day arrests in a crackdown on online fraud.
In May, Philippine police officials reported that they have arrested, with Interpol's help, at least 58 Filipino suspects who duped hundreds of victims worldwide into exposing themselves in front of webcams or engaging in lewd chats, including a Scottish teenager who committed suicide after being blackmailed.
The Philippines has been trying to build a capability to deal with the cybercrimes but police say more have to be done, including strengthening legislation.
"In the past, criminals only used guns," Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa of the national police's Anti-Cybercrime Group said. "Now their weapons are computers, wireless phones and all sorts of telecommunications devices."
"It takes time, but we'll get to them with better technology and help from foreign counterparts," he said.
The 44 latest suspects were arrested in two hideouts in central Iloilo province Wednesday by police and immigration agents. Several laptop computers, telephone sets and other telecommunications devices used by the syndicate were confiscated, police officials said.
An initial police raid in one hideout led to the arrest of 23 Taiwanese, including two women, who were caught while engaging some victims online. Three unidentified syndicate members, however, fled by car to another hideout, where police arrested 21 other suspects, including two Chinese, Sosa said.
Sosa said that authorities were considering whether to deport the Taiwanese suspects to face criminal charges at home.
After identifying potential victims in China or Taiwan, syndicate members, who pretend to be police, prosecutors and court officials separately call and tell them that their bank accounts have been found to have been used by money launderers or even terrorists. The victims are then convinced to transfer their money to a purportedly government-secured bank account for safety and for them to avoid prosecution, Sosa said.
Many victims, who have been defrauded of large amounts of money, have reported the crime to Chinese and Taiwanese authorities, who tipped off their Philippine counterparts and helped track down the syndicate in Iloilo city, about 430 kilometers (265 miles) southeast of Manila, according to Sosa.
He said the syndicate members could earn millions of pesos a day, but he didn't reveal how much might have been stolen overall.