MANILA: Fifty-eight people have been arrested in the Philippines for their involvement in a giant, global Internet “sextortion” network, local police and Interpol announced on Friday.
Victims have been lured by people posing as attractive, young women into giving sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves online, then blackmailed sometimes repeatedly for many thousands of dollars, the authorities said.
The 58 arrested in the Philippines were just a small part in an expanding global phenomenon that is being fuelled by the explosion of social media, the director of Interpol’s Digital Crime Centre, Sanjay Virmani said.
“The scale of this extortion network is massive,” Virmani said.
Philippine police chief Alan Purisima said the 58 Filipinos arrested would be charged over a range of crimes, including engaging in child pornography, extortion and using technologies to commit fraud.
Purisima said the scam typically involved the fake woman 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 said, adding webcams were used to record sexually explicit conversations and actions.
“They then threaten to release it to friends and relatives.” Purisima said victims paid between hundreds or thousands of dollars, sending their payments via Western Union and other money transfer remittance companies. While he said elderly men were often targeted, senior representatives of foreign police agencies also attending the press conference said minors were also victims.
Detective chief inspector Gary Cunningham, from the Scottish police force’s major investigation team who also briefed reporters, said one teenager in Scotland had committed suicide after being extorted. Cunningham said the boy was 17 when he killed himself.
More than 530 people in Hong Kong, many aged between 20 and 30, have fallen victim to the scam since the beginning of last year, according to Chief Inspector Louis Kwan, from the Chinese territory’s police commercial crime bureau.
Kwan said Hong Kong victims had paid up to $15,000 in desperate attempts to keep the sexually compromising material private.
But, once hooked, the victims sometimes found they could not escape.
Kwan said some victims paid up to three times before going to the police, “when they realised they could no longer afford to continue paying”. However, authorities emphasised the Philippines was not the hub of the global “sextortion” scams, only that the current investigation had focused on the Southeast Asian nation.
“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,” Interpol’s Virmani said.
Purisima said authorities from the United States, Hong Kong, Interpol, Scotland, Singapore and Australia last year established “Operation Strikeback”, which led to the 58 arrests.
“Operation Strikeback highlights international cooperation and coordination in dealing with cybercrime,” Purisima said.
The joint taskforce was created at an Interpol meeting to tackle the “growing number of sextortion victims in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States”, according to Purisima.
He said the taskforce was also focused on potential victims in Australia, South Korea and Malaysia, although other authorities at the press conference also said that people anywhere in the world with Internet access could be targeted.
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