Online scams shouldn’t be underestimated
As someone who helps train students and parents on online safety, a part of me believed that I would be somewhat immune to online scams. I’m meticulous about background checks on online sellers and often cautious with unknown emails. Yet a few weeks ago, I found myself indiscriminately clicking on a site that turned out to be a phishing attack — a type of scam in which the attacker tries to deceive individuals into sharing sensitive online information. Disguised as an email from a friend, the message read: “Hey I saw you on this video.” Thinking it was a news feature related to my work, I promptly clicked on the link. Fortunately, a website blocker alert intervened, identifying it as a malicious site. It was a slight blow to my ego, but at least my passwords were still safe.
Some members of one of the Facebook groups I belong to were not as lucky. A user named “Christina” posted a very tempting offer of fresh seafood for a much lower price—claiming it was sourced directly from fishing communities in Batangas. Days after several people had placed their orders paying for them via GCash, Christina stopped replying altogether and had seemingly deactivated her Facebook profile. Realizing they were swindled, the victims agreed to report the mobile account. However, when someone suggested they should report the incident to the local police station, most agreed it was too time-consuming to do so, opting to “just charge it to experience.”
The Philippine National Police-Anti-Cybercrime Group recently reported that in 2023 alone, Filipinos had already lost an estimated P155 million to online scams. This alarming number likely represents only a fraction of the actual losses due to the often underreported nature of these crimes. Online selling scams, exemplified by cases like Christina’s, topped the list with 3,615 reported instances from January to August 2023. Common scams also include package scams, love scams, profile hijacking, and loan scams.
Online scams often employ well-thought-out social engineering tactics to manipulate human behavior. For instance, perpetrators frequently leverage emotional triggers to manipulate their targets, creating a sense of urgency, fear, or excitement that impairs rational thinking. The heightened emotional state makes it challenging for victims to objectively evaluate the situation, resulting in impulsive decisions and unfortunate outcomes.
Another common tactic involves exploiting trust and capitalizing on familiarity to persuade individuals to take desired actions. Phishing websites, for example, closely mimic the official sites of trusted organizations, to deceive users into divulging sensitive information. In the case of love scams, perpetrators invest significant time in building emotional connections. The sense of familiarity makes individuals less inclined to question the authenticity of the perpetrator’s actions.
Last week, the Department of the Interior and Local Government signed a partnership with the Securities and Exchange Commission to bolster the SEC’s ongoing campaign against scams. Through the collaboration, SEC’s Anti-Scam and Illegal Taking of Investments Group aims to run community-based workshops that would educate more Filipinos about avoiding financial and investment scams. The initiative also seeks to promote early reporting and detection of any illegal financial schemes.
Despite several efforts from the authorities, effectively combating the issue remains challenging due to the difficulty in identifying perpetrators as well as the constant emergence of new online scams. Online scams have evolved into a highly profitable and fast-growing transnational organized crime, with Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, identified as hotspots. Reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the UN Human Rights Office reveal that these illegal online operations generate billions for large criminal groups, intertwined with other crimes like money laundering and human trafficking. Given the expansive influence of these criminal networks, addressing the problem requires a cohesive regional strategy to eradicate scam operations from Southeast Asia, rather than tackling it in isolated efforts.
As for users, it may be tempting to dismiss these statistics with a “this could never happen to me” mentality, but best to keep in mind that this sense of invincibility aligns perfectly with scammers’ strategies. On the other hand, a healthy amount of vigilance and developing just a few good habits could go a long way in protecting us from these online attacks. Regularly change your passwords, turn on two-factor authentication whenever you can, make sure to install security updates as soon as they are available and remember the age-old advice: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.