With reports from Joel B. Escovilla & Carmelito Q. Francisco
SOCIAL media can play cupid, especially for those actively seeking partners away from home and indeed, sometimes, two souls connect and make beautiful music happily ever after.
But not in the case of Ginnie.* She met Arthur, a foreigner on Facebook, and learned a tough lesson.
“It was so uncanny that we share similar interests in movies, music and celebrities. He also followed Filipino icons that I liked, and was willing to listen to whatever I said, even if I was ranting. I felt comfortable talking to him about myself and circumstances, and I felt he gave quite sage advices. I really fell for him,” Ginnie mused.
It was a whirlwind romance and two weeks into their friendship, she received a proposal from Arthur, and he informed her of his travel to Davao City to meet her family. He introduced himself as a Captain of a sea vessel and while still at sea, he said he wanted to send Ginnie a Mac laptop as gift. However, he claimed he does not have cash to pay the cost of the courier so he requested Ginnie to send him money in the amount of USD500 to cover the cost, in the meantime.
This should have been a red flag, but Ginnie, believing Arthur’s sincerity, started raising the money in earnest. Her friends and relatives tried to talk her out of it but she was adamant and finally got hold of enough cash by dipping into her savings and taking out loans. After sending the money through a payment center, she no longer heard a peep from Arthur. She tried reaching out to him through his phone numbers but he could no longer be reached, to her dismay.
The experience left her “heartbroken and poor.”
She didn’t realize that it was easy to extract information about her on her Facebook page as she was always posting her activities, including the food she ate and the places she visited. She was an easy prey to vultures stalking the internet.
Bureau of Customs (BOC)-Port of Davao district collector Atty. Erastus Sandino B. Austria said most of the inquiries they received from their hotline were related to the love scam.
“How does this work? This is when someone pretends to be another person online and befriends you through social media, establishes a relationship somewhat over the course of several weeks, and it can go through several months,” he said.
The scammer will then pretend to send a parcel or package and ask their victims to pay the charges. An accomplice posing as a BOC employee will demand an exorbitant amount from the victim, supposedly as customs duties and charges.
Accordingly, the agency recorded between 75 and 100 complaints from victims this year alone. But Austria said the actual number of victims could be more because some of them are ashamed to come out in the open.
He said these con artists fleeced victims P35,000 and up to P100.000.
However, he quickly clarified that the BOC is not the proper enforcement agency to go after the scammers. Instead, they will refer the victims to the cybercrime units of the National Bureau of Investigation or the Philippine National Police.
What the law says
According to lawyer Danilo Balucos of the National Union of Peoples Lawyer in Southern Mindanao, victims may ask assistance either at the National Bureau of Investigation or the Philippine National Police.
“The PNP has a cybercrime department or unit. They will gather forensic evidence for the subsequent filing of cases,” he said.
“The crime of Estafa or Swindling is punishable under Article 315 of the Revised Penal Code (“RPC”) and there are different forms of committing it. Estafa can be committed a) with unfaithfulness or abuse of confidence; b) by means of false pretenses or fraudulent acts; and c) through fraudulent means. The first form which is “with unfaithfulness or abuse of confidence” is known as estafa with abuse of confidence, while the second form and third form, which are “by means of false pretenses or fraudulent acts” and “through fraudulent means” are known simply as estafa by means of deceit.”
Councilor Bonz Andre Militar, committee chair on Information and Communication Technology, said this scam is difficult to trace as unscrupulous persons use fake accounts and fake contact numbers. The prudent thing to do is to verify if the person is legitimate and if the account is real,
“If the SIM card registration is implemented, we can easily locate and identify the scammers,” he said.
Militar is preparing a privilege speech to urge people to be vigilant on this kind of online modus operandi.
Nelson Canete, regional director of the National Telecommunication XI, said they have no way of monitoring this kind of transaction as it does not use their frequency. Also, he said if the incident is reported, the victim has already been scammed and finding the culprit is a difficult thing to do. The best remedy is for the victim to report to the cybercrime unit of the PNP.
Austria listed several indicators in this kind of transaction that should immediately alert potential victims.
For one, the BOC does not directly contact people to ask to settle their customs duties. Instead, the logistics provider will shoulder all associated fees and charges, which are incorporated into the final shipping cost.
Another huge red flag is when victims are told to pay the fees through money transfer facilities.
He said the Love Scam is so effective because it is considered a long-term swindle.
“They will court you for a long time and gain your trust, and when they start to build the relationship and rapport, that’s when they inform you of the package they sent you,” he said. “Others can’t believe that it’s a scam because the trust was established for a long time.”
Finally, Austria urged people to call the BOC hotlines to verify if a shipment had indeed arrived under their name. “If there is doubt, please get in touch with us, so we can validate and verify for you,” he said.
People may reach the BOC-Port of Davao hotline numbers at (082) 233-1258 or (082) 224-9691. They may also text or call 0929-7443588 and 0948-6773176 (Smart) or 0967-3561740 (Globe).
The figures cited by the BOC may just be the tip of the iceberg as many are too timid to come out in the open. Now that Christmas is approaching, unscrupulous people could be actively searching for the next gullible victim.