MANILA (UPDATE) – The Philippine National Police (PNP) on Friday announced that it arrested 58 suspects involved in online ''sextortion'' in cooperation with various police organizations around the world.
The PNP said ''Operation Strike Back'', which was launched on April 30, led to the simultaneous arrests of 58 people and confiscation of 250 pieces of electronic evidence in Bicol, Laguna, Bulacan and Taguig City.
The PNP said its Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) worked with the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC), Department of Justice, Police Scotland, Interpol, Hong Kong Police, Singapore Police, US Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), Child Exploitation Online Protection (CEOP) and Australian Federal Police.
''With the joint effort of Interpol partners, PAOCC, DOJ and PNP ACG, the service of 15 warrants under the COPLAN Strike Back resulted in the arrest of 3 suspects from the Laguna and Taguig City Group, 3 from the Bulacan Group, and 52 from the Bicol Group,'' the PNP said.
''The 58 suspects were already subjected to inquest proceedings. For those suspects who were not present during the service of the search warrants, they will be proceeded against through regular or case filing after follow-up investigation based on the evidence confiscated."
Interpol Digital Crime Center director Sanjay Virmani said the scale of the sextortion activities is massive. Authorities, however, noted that the practice of sextortion is not unique to and concentrated in the Philippines.
He added that the recent success in the Philippines ''is just a taste of things to come."
''There is no hiding place. No matter where criminals hide their crimes and hide behind the anonymity of Internet, law enforcement is equally determined in their efforts to track them down and bring them to justice,'' Virmani said.
How sextortion works
Sextortion involves the creation of a fake account of a person, usually on popular social networking site Facebook, with the purpose of attracting prospective victims abroad.
Sextortion suspects usually send nude photos or videos of the fake person to their victims in order to lure the latter to engage in cybersex. Sometimes, they make the victims comfortable by engaging them in conversations.
The suspect will record the victim's cybersex video without permission. The unwitting victim will then be asked by the suspect to send money in exchange for not sending the incriminating footage to his or her relatives and friends or uploading it on the web.
The PNP said extortion money usually ranges from P20,000 to P90,000 (US$500 - $2,000). Extortion money is usually sent through money remittance agencies.
Authorities said elderly men are the typical victims of sextortion, but even minors had been victimized.
Detective Chief Inspector Gary Cunningham from Police Scotland said a suspect from the Philippines victimized a 17-year-old Scottish boy.
Cunningham said no money was sent but the boy ended up committing suicide due to the intense emotional stress caused by the blackmail.
Authorities said the arrests were made possible through the availability of "digital footprints" left by the suspects.
Senior Superintendent Gilbert Caasi Sosa, chief of PNP ACG, said the suspects were tracked down through their respective IP (Internet Protocol) addresses and home addresses, where the extortion moneys were sent.
The three suspects in Laguna and Taguig were identified as Vincent Regori Bravo, Archie alias "Gian" Tolin, and Jomar Palacio alias "Park Ji Man". They were accused of extorting money from their victims from the United Kingdom.
Arrested in Bulacan, meanwhile, were Aldrin Villamonte, Jemuel Matuguina, and Emuross Dela Cruz.
In Bicol, where most of the arrests were made, authorities dismantled organized groups involved in sextortion in Naga City, Nabua, and Libmaman in Camarines Sur, and Legazpi City in Albay.
The Bicol groups' operations were made to look legitimate by setting up ''call center-style'' companies.
Meanwhile, seized from the suspects were mobile phones, identification cards, assorted documents, laptops, network and storage devices, assorted SIM cards, assorted credit and ATM cards, pornographic materials, cameras, CCTV equipment, live ammunition, tablets, telephone sets, desktop computers, assorted cards.
''These pieces of digital evidence will be analyzed by the forensic team of PNP ACG with the help of experts from involved countries to identify any additional victims and for follow-up investigations,'' the PNP said.
Sosa said investigations are still ongoing as it is highly possible that more people are involved in this illegal operation.
William Wallrapp, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attaché, added that due to the nature of the crime, many victims have yet to come forward.
The PNP said those arrested in Laguna and Taguig were charged for violation of Access Devices Regulation Act and Anti-Child Pornography Act. Those arrested in Bulacan were charged with violation of Access Devices Regulation Act and robbery/extortion.
Charges for violation of Access Devices Regulation Act and Cybercrime Prevention Act are being readied against those arrested in Bicol.
The PNP hopes to clean the Philippines' image as one of the countries heavily involved in sextortion.
''Crime indeed does not pay because the law will eventually catch up with the criminals even if they commit crimes with the use of information and communications technology or the Internet,'' it said.
''Operation Strike Back provided the opportunity for information-sharing and continuous collaboration, cooperation and coordination among our international and local partners in cracking down cybercrimes around the globe. In effect, we have attained a high impact result to counter the Philippines' label as sextortion capital of the world."
The PNP said last April 30's operation was a result of a global cooperation that started in 2013.
It said the 1st Interpol Eurasian Working Group Meeting in Singapore in November 2013 highlighted the growing number of sextortion victims in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, United Kingdom and the United States, with potential victims in Australia, Korea and Malaysia.
After the formulation of a joint investigation model to combat the increasing sextortion cases worldwide, the cybercrime departments of Hong Kong, Singapore, Scotland UK, Australia, Philippines, and others through Interpol, agreed to share intelligence information.
A second operational meeting was held in Singapore last March by the Interpol Digital Crime Center where payment systems and judicial representatives also participated.
United Kingdom's ambassador to the Philippines Asif Ahmad, meanwhile, underscored the importance of global cooperation since cybercrime is an international problem and respects no nationality or borders.
Virmani, for his part, said cooperation among various agencies is needed due to scale of the illegal operations.