COMMONSENSE - Marichu Villanueva - The Philippine Star

It is without a doubt there has been a deluge of cybercrimes and other illegal activities perpetrated through the internet highway following the COVID-19 pandemic period. Law enforcement authorities noted the upsurge of cyber scams and other criminal activities committed, especially related to electronic commerce (e-commerce), or selling via online which became popular as the safe mode of purchases during the pandemic.

Thus, the public fears these cybercrimes are turning into “scam-demic” proportion.

Art Samaniego, co-founder of ScamWatch Pilipinas, an advocacy and volunteer watchdog group, actually coined “scam-demic” during our conversations at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday. Samaniego’s play on words is not exactly surprising because he is the Tech Section editor of The Manila Bulletin. Likened to the pandemic, Samaniego warned the phishing, smishing, and quishing technology-driven crimes are spreading not only here in our country but also elsewhere around the world.

Both cyber security experts – Philippine National Police-Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG) official spokesperson Capt. Michelle Sabino and Angel Redoble, chief information security officer of PLDT/Smart Telecom – who also joined us in our weekly breakfast news forum confirmed the growing “scam-demic” fears.

Being one of the two giant telecommunications companies (telcos), we also invited an official representative from Globe Telecom to join our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum but they declined. Nonetheless, our cyber technology resource speakers discussed at length the troubling increase in cyber scams and other online frauds and crimes.

Both Sabino and Redoble concurred that cyber scams got a big boost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital technology-savvy criminal minds took advantage of the previous government’s mandatory contact-tracing information required from people before entry to public and private establishments during the pandemic.

As one of the anti-COVID measures, all people were required to provide or submit personal data and information for contact-tracing purposes. Sabino recalled many of the contact-tracing information, written on paper sheets, were improperly disposed of and thus became veritable data throve for these identity thieves. Be wary likewise, she added, about information you give to membership or credit applications that are not bound by Privacy Law.

Adapting and evolving with cybercrime techniques, Sabino announced the PNP-ACG will soon put up tech-savvy investigators in cybercrime desks at all police stations across the country. Sabino, however, conceded, this would require intensive training for manpower personnel at the cybercrime desks to cope with rising petty to high-financed cybercrimes. Offhand, Sabino cited, the PNP-ACG has only 800 to 1,000 police personnel nationwide.

On the part of telcos, Redoble disclosed that PLDT/Smart have so far successfully “blocked” 700,000 URLs that were reported to them as involved in online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC). A URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, is a unique identifier used to locate a resource on the internet. It is also referred to as a web address. But even after these URLs were blocked, Redoble found disturbing the reported 1.3 billion attempts to still access them. “That’s how bad it is,” Redoble rued.

Being an active partner of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), Redoble cited reports of the Scale of Harm Survey by International Justice Mission (IJM) and the University of Nottingham Rights Lab that estimated 471,416 Filipino children were trafficked to produce new child sexual exploitation materials in 2022.

Speaking as chief information security officer for one of the country’s three telcos (the third is Dito Telecommunity), Redoble explained the dangers of the “predictive capability” of cyber hunters looking for their potential victims. Redoble explained these “social engineering” scammers monitor people who post where, when, and what they are doing.

Redoble and Sabino cautioned anew law-abiding netizens these activities and bits of information posted in social media platforms can be seen and accessed by others too. They pointed out public WiFi facilities that boost signals of mobile phones, tablets, laptops and other digital devices have become the chief means through which these tech-savvy criminals expanded their illegal trade.

Lately, Samaniego warned that the emergence of the so-called “dark web” became another source for identity thieves looking for potential victims. Presenting samples of high-tech gadgets, Samaniego showed how these identity thieves can illegally access and cull personal data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok and other social media platforms on the internet.

Samaniego and Jocel de Guzman, creator of Truth 360, are co-founders the ScamWatch Pilipinas joined forces with the National Cyber Crime Hub in handling the Hotline 1-3-2-6, an inter-agency call center where the public can directly report and complain cyber scams and other digital crimes. Aside from the PNP-ACG, the anti-cybercrime division of the National Bureau of Investigation is the other law enforcement arm of Hotline 1-3-2-6.

For the public, Samaniego urged them to heed the following reminders they phrased in Tagalog for easier understanding by the youngest to the senior citizens. The ScamWatch Pilipinas came up with four “to do” principles:

– Mag-snub. (Just ignore them.)

– Mag-damot ng pera. (Scrimp on money) whenever amounts of money are involved;

– Mag-duda. (Be skeptical. If it’s too good to be true, then it’s not true, as one popular adage goes.)

– Mag-report agad. (Report immediately suspicious offers to law enforcement authorities.)

Likened to the COVID-19 infection that spread throughout the country, the “scam-demic” can also get your social media contacts victimized by cyber scammers. And these are your family members, relatives, friends, classmates, co-workers and other people you know. So don’t ignore the warning signs.

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