Philippine Crime Body Warns Gambling Scams Worse Than Drugs

September 19, 2023
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The head of the Philippines’ Presidential Anti-Organised Crime Commission has warned that local scam syndicates linked to online gambling are now as great a threat to law and order as illegal drug use.
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The head of the Philippines’ Presidential Anti-Organised Crime Commission (PAOCC) has warned that local scam syndicates linked to online gambling are now as great a threat to law and order as illegal drug use.

PAOCC executive director Gilbert Cruz told reporters on Thursday (September 14) that online scammers make more money and are harder to track than drug pushers, and consequently “the problem with online scams is now worse than drugs”.

Cruz cited police Anti-Cybercrime Group data showing that in the year to August, the authorities rescued a total of 4,092 Filipinos and foreigners tricked into working in conditions of slavery for scam syndicates.

The first eight months of the year also saw 397 arrests out of 16,000 police investigations into cybercrime, more than half of which involved online scamming.

Most rescued victims were involved in operations linked to licensed foreign-facing online gaming operators (POGOs), an enslavement trend that has escalated in the Philippines in tandem with the spread of online scamming in mainland Southeast Asia.

“Online scammers earn more than those who sell illegal drugs,” Cruz said.

“And the risk of these criminals getting arrested [was] lower than [for] those who were into drug trafficking.

“It’s because online scammers are behind a fake identity and only need to operate online, which makes going after them even harder,” he said.

Cruz’s comments came as politicians and police weighed in on the importance of SIM cards to scamming operations and the lack of scrutiny allowing pre-registered cards to be purchased without identity verification.

Raids on POGO-linked operations have resulted in the seizure of hundreds of thousands of SIM cards, including cards registered in blocks of up to 64 at a time.

This prompted Cruz to call for face-to-face instead of online registration in order to impede criminal groups.

The Department of Information and Communications Technology last week said that 28,000 SIM cards were seized in a POGO raid in August that contained 1bn pesos ($18m) stolen from syndicate targets.

“The POGOs used these SIM cards to steal and load the money in their respective e-wallets,” department secretary John Uy told reporters.

The PAOCC has requested that the government suspend online SIM card registration despite codification of the process in the SIM Registration Act at the end of 2022.

The law’s main sponsor, senator and former presidential candidate Grace Poe, said on Friday that online registration, including live selfies and face matching checks, should stay because the law can protect users as long as it is properly implemented.

POGO licensees are being reviewed by gambling regulator PAGCOR for licence fitness, with a revised list of approved operators to be issued within weeks, PAGCOR chairman and CEO Alejandro Tengco said last Wednesday.

The review follows years of escalation of criminal acts, illegal detention and tax avoidance implicating POGO licensees, including complaints from police, human rights and labour groups and the national auditor.

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