What they did for love
That there’s a sucker born every minute is writ large in the rising number of online “love scams” being investigated by the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG).
It’s bad enough that the victims seemed so love-struck that they were very easily parted with their money; it’s worse that the scammers almost always got away with murder, with the authorities stymied by the victims’ reluctance to file a complaint, as well as data privacy and bank secrecy laws.
Filipinos are said to be hopeless romantics, and the internet has made such a trait a dangerous and burgeoning vulnerability.
Here’s how it usually goes down, according to the PNP-ACG, as told to Inquirer reporter Jeannette I. Andrade:
The victim meets the perp, often identifying as a foreigner, on a dating site or on social media. They begin a flirtation that becomes a romance.
The perp prepares for a visit. But on D-Day, the victim gets a call that the perp has fallen ill, or has met an accident, and desperately needs cash.
The victim is persuaded to cough up through a wire transfer or deposit.
And then silence: The perp simply vanishes, deleting his or her online presence and leaving behind a broken heart and dwindled resources.
A variation is the perp’s promise to the victim of a windfall in exchange for initial payments on a profitable shipment.
Love scams are technically estafa or swindling cases, violations of Article 315 of the Revised Penal Code.
Each of the 67 million Filipinos online could be a victim or a suspect, according to the PNP-ACG. “One problem” is the element of consent, says Senior Insp. Artemio Cinco Jr., ACG spokesperson. The victims were willing.
And their number is growing. The PNP-ACG looked into 555 online scam cases in 2016-2017. With the increasing number of internet users, there is also an increase in the opportunity for cybercriminals to do their thing, says Senior Supt. Marni C. Marcos Jr., ACG acting director.
In her report, Andrade presented unfortunate cases of love scams — hilarious if they weren’t so tragic.
“Rita” was convinced by a perp claiming to be a US soldier to pay P150,000 to a supposed Customs official for boxes of US dollars recovered in Afghanistan.
She paid, but there were no such boxes, of course.
“Helen” met “Roger,” a supposed British widower and chemical engineer, on Facebook. As the romance moved to Viber, Roger and an accomplice convinced Helen to wire P540,000 to get Roger work permits in Malaysia as well as pay for the medical costs of an accident involving Roger.
It was all fiction; she reported the case to the PNP-ACG.
But those duped in love scams are often too embarrassed to file a formal complaint, without which authorities can do nothing.
Then there are the formidable data and bank secrecy laws that prevent banks from sharing information on transactions, Cinco noted.
It is up to every lonely heart to be careful when seeking love online. Cinco offered tips that should shake the stardust out of one’s eyes: 1) Be wary of newly created accounts and of accounts with less than 20 friends. “If you find that you and the other person are the only ones conversing, and the friends are always quiet, that would be suspicious,” Cinco said. 2) Be suspicious when your sweetheart is hardly identifiable on Skype. 3) Take note of the accent or pronunciation of words and make sure these jibe with the nationality that the other person is claiming.
Cinco also said: Scammers never ask for money outright because it would immediately cramp their style. They usually wait for the victim to offer financial help. Sometimes another person or third party would turn up to make his or her story more realistic.
The bottom line: In the wild and wooly internet, it’s important to not get carried away by your emotions. Guard your resources (emotional, financial) when meeting a possible lover online.
Ask yourself: Is he or she too good to be true? When it comes to love and money, safe is always better than sorry.
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