Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros exposed on Tuesday the sordid and full details of a huge cyber scam operation unearthed by raiders of a Clark ecozone firm from where over a thousand human-trafficking victims from around Asia were rescued recently.
She promptly called on authorities to check similar nefarious setups of criminals posing as investors.
The opposition lawmaker likewise renewed her call to altogether ban Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) in the country, noting how these provide a “legal layer” to cyber scam hubs, which she lamented, “remain beyond regulatory scrutiny.”
Senate probers dug into Resolution No. 595 calling for an inquiry in aid of legislation on human trafficking and cyber fraud operations in Clark authored by Sen. Grace Poe, and Senate Resolution No. 611 calling for an investigation on human trafficking inside the Clark Freeport Zone filed by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.
It was also a continuation of the initial inquiries triggered by Gatchalian’s privileged speech regarding Filipino workers who escaped from “scam hubs” in Myanmar and Cambodia.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Hontiveros said that a licensed POGO has been used as a legal cover for a cryptocurrency scam and human trafficking operation in Sun Valley Hub Corporation in Clark, Pampanga.
The scam is operated by a company called Colorful and Leap Group, which is a sublessee of CGC Technologies Inc., a POGO company licensed by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR).
The Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking confirmed during the Senate Committee on Women hearing on scam operations that scam hubs do hide under a legal cover.
“It is appalling that this fraudulent cryptocurrency corporation, which has trafficked thousands of foreign nationals into the country to work as scammers, has been operating under a legal POGO. Ginagamit o nagpapagamit ang mga POGO para manloko ng mga inosenteng tao,” Hontiveros said.
“Ano ang ginagawa ng PAGCOR? Hindi naman pwede na pag-nagapruba sila, hindi na nila babantayan. PAGCOR, as the regulator of POGOs, should be actively looking into the companies that they allow to operate in the country. Otherwise, it is, in effect, exacerbating this growing and disturbing humanitarian crisis in our region,” Hontiveros said.
The premises were raided by law enforcement authorities last May 4, which resulted in the arrest of at least 12 individuals, who were allegedly supervising the operations. Currently, the repatriation is ongoing for the over 1,000 human trafficking victim-survivors from Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Bhutan, among others.
Hontiveros conducted an ocular inspection of the Colorful and Leap Group offices and residences in Clark. The senator also met with some victim-survivors who shared their ordeal, which turned out to be similar to the love scam modus in Myanmar and Cambodia that the senator previously revealed in the Senate.
“The scam office, led by Chinese bosses, operates like a huge call center, with rows and rows of computer tables. This was where the victim-survivors would set up their fake accounts using different female models also hired by the company. They would then find scam victims usually from the US, through dating apps like Tinder, Facebook Dating, Bumble, and Hinge,” Hontiveros explained.
“The offices even have video conference rooms that are set up to look like a bedroom, a living room, a gym, or an office, so the hired model can pretend to be there should the American victim ask for photos or videos to confirm her veracity. Kapag sa tingin nila na-iinlove na ang Amerikano, doon na magsisimulang kumbinsihin niyang mag-invest sa pekeng cryptocurrency platform. Hanep sa panggagantso,” Hontiveros added.
This scheme is also the same as the operation in Bayport Naia Residences in Pasay City, which the senator flagged in the previous hearing on crypto scams, upon the report of an Indonesian witness who was trafficked into the country to work as a scammer. Hontiveros then reported that the company in Bayport is still recruiting for its scam operations up to now.
“Laganap pa rin sa social media, lalo na sa Facebook, ang mga job ads na papuntang Bayport Residences. Napatotohanan na ng ating dating Indonesian witness na si Ridwan na scam ang kalakaran sa loob niyan. I hope our law enforcers conduct a raid and rescue in that area as soon as possible,” Hontiveros urged.
The senator stressed that the first concrete step to take is to ban POGOs in the country as POGOs provide a “legal cover” for these hubs and the operations of these hubs remain beyond regulatory scrutiny.
“If POGOs are allowed to continue business as usual, the crypto scam and human trafficking operations will also grow at a frightening rate our government will never be able to overtake. Walang ni isang magandang bagay ang naibigay ang POGO sa bansa. Krimen lang ang dala. Paulit-ulit na natin itong sinasabi, at sana naman sa bagong impormasyong ito, matauhan na ang ating gubyerno. Kick POGOs out of the country now,” Hontiveros concluded.
Image credits: Albert Calvelo/Senate PRIB