Inside the global ‘sextortion’ ring busted in the Philippines


Sanjay Virmani, director of Interpol's Digital Crime Center, speaks in Quezon, a suburb of Manila. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

On Friday, Philippine authorities, with the aid of cybercrime investigators from Interpol, arrested at least 87 people in connection with perhaps one of the world's largest "sextortion" rings. The suspects, picked up in seven locations and belonging to at least three syndicates, had allegedly been involved in an industrial-scale operation that tricked people on the Internet into exposing themselves through webcams or live chats and then blackmailed them. The ring's activities reportedly led to at least one death, the tragic suicide of a teenager in Scotland.

Sextortion is a uniquely 21st-century crime, in which a kid sitting in his bedroom in Edinburgh could have his life upturned by tricksters on the other side of the world. Cybersecurity experts have been grappling with how to fight it — here's how the FBI recommends defending against sextortionists. "These crimes are not limited to any one country and nor are the victims. That’s why international cooperation in investigating these crimes is essential," said Sanjay Virmani, director of Interpol's Digital Crime Center in Singapore, at a news conference in Manila.

Here's the South China Morning Post, a daily based in Hong Kong, on the racket:

According to Philippine National Police Chief Alan Purisima, the syndicates had created provocative, alluring and entirely fictitious social media accounts to entice unwitting victims into live cybersex activities. The criminal groups would then secretly record the footage, before threatening to expose the victims to their friends and families unless they handed over between US$500 and US$2,000.

Hong Kong police inspector Louis Kwan Chung-yin said more than 470 people from Hong Kong were blackmailed in this way last year, while about 160 had been stung so far this year. In one case, a victim paid the equivalent of US$15,000, he said, adding that the victims were of various ages.

Investigators from the U.S., Britain, Hong Kong, Interpol, the Philippines and elsewhere collaborated closely, tracking IP addresses and monitoring social media, until they traced the racket to the various spots where the suspects were working. Philippine authorities claim the syndicates' activities were not based solely on Philippine soil. The supposed "leaders" of the ring have been identified, but authorities have yet to disclose their identities because some are still on the run.

The Philippines is the world's fifth-largest English-speaking country and a growing hub for outsourcing operations and international call centers. Reports suggest that the sextortion syndicates ran vast, organized operations with employees guaranteed paid vacation days. But authorities hope the new attention generated by the arrests will send a warning to other cyber extortionists. "You better be prepared for the consequences of your actions because as you can see we have made a commitment to work together," Interpol's Virmani told reporters. "You will be caught, and you will be held accountable for your actions."

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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