Thursday, August 04, 2005

Text Scams

Text scams targeting OFWs, foreign nationals

Erwin Lemuel Oliva

LYDIA dela Torre. 51, wept as she told reporters how she was duped into spending her hard-earned money after falling prey to a short messaging service (SMS) or text-based scam perpetrated by criminal syndicates in the Philippines.

A resident of La Paz, Iloilo, Dela Torre was at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas this week to claim the 950,000 pesos she supposedly won in a raffle. But she never knew that she was the latest victim of a text scam, which often tricks recipients into giving away their money in exchange for information on how to claim their winnings in a supposed raffle draw by a certain government agency or foundation.

In her case, Dela Torre said, a supposed lawyer named William Gomez sent her a text message, claiming she won second prize in a raffle on June 9, 2005.

She immediately called the sender of the text message, and was instructed to send 14 PIN codes of 300-peso worth of pre-paid card credits to a certain mobile number. After doing so, she was asked to go to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank) to claim her prize, only to find out this week that she was duped.

Text scams have been victimizing Filipinos since 1999, according to the National Bureau of Investigation. But lately, criminal syndicates operating text-based scams are increasingly targeting overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and foreign nationals, the Anti-Money Laundering Council said on Thursday.

The NBI said that the modus operandi of text scam operators has also evolved.

"We suspect that people behind text scams are part of a criminal syndicate now victimizing OFWs and foreign nationals," the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) head Vicente Aquino told reporters during a briefing in Manila.

Aquino added that government's recent campaign to go after the people behind text scams has only shifted the attention to the OFWs.

"We have tightened the noose, so to speak against operators, of text scams. So they are now targeting OFWs."

BSP Governor Amando Tetangco Jr. remarked that while there has been a noticeable decline in the number of text scam-related complaints received by the bank, there has been an evident increase of complaints from OFWs.

According to Palmer Mallari, National Bureau of Investigation supervising agent, the law enforcement agency has received numerous complaints but has caught only a handful of text scam operators.

Law enforcement is more "reactive" than progressive in arresting this crime, he said. "In most cases, greedy text fraudsters were the ones arrested. They usually use fictitious names to open bank accounts and buy pre-paid numbers to start going after intended victims. So the chances of catching them are very slim," Mallari told

He added that the NBI can move only after complaints are filed with the law enforcement agency.

Text scam operators have used various agencies like the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Department of Trade and Industry, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and lately the PGMA Foundation, Smart and Globe, to perpetrate text scams, Mallari said.

Text scams usually inform recipients that they have won a raffle but need to deposit a certain amount of money to a certain bank account provided by the fraudster. Text scam operators randomly pick victims to dupe.

Mallari said that one way they pick their victims is to call random numbers. The scam begins once they get an answer.

Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño said several cases have been filed against text scam operators caught in Cebu City, Pasig, and other areas, but no one has yet gone to jail.

Mallari suggested that the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas or AMLC give law enforcement the power to pry open bank accounts supplied by text scam operators.

Law enforcement can look into the bank accounts only after a petition is filed by the AMLC and the Solicitor General, he said, noting that most operators of text scams are caught by police through entrapment operations.

Meanwhile, Aquino estimated that "millions of pesos" have been lost to text scams.

Alfonso Penaco, BSP director of the Office of Special Investigation, said education is crucial in getting rid of them. "We urge mobile phone operators to also help us in this campaign," Penaco said.

The National Telecommunications Commission, meanwhile, said it has blocked 161 mobile phone numbers suspected to have been used for text scams as of June 2005.

"I think poverty, ignorance and gullibility have also contributed to the increase in text scam victims. So it is important to educate people on how to avoid being victims of it," added Aquino.

BSP Governor Tetangco reminded the public not to be duped by text scams.

"For the record, the BSP does not have raffles. If you won a raffle, don't you think you're the one that should be given the money and not you giving your own?" he said.