Police have arrested 58 people in the Philippines for their alleged involvement in a global internet “sextortion” racket that snared countless victims - including more than 600 Hongkongers - in the past 18 months.
Officers working in conjunction with the Hong Kong police, Interpol and US authorities raided premises across northern parts of the country and cracked three syndicates known to be targeting overseas victims.
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.
Watch: Dozens held in Philippines over global 'sextortion' ring
In a bid to crack down on “naked chat” blackmail, the police commercial crime bureau launched Operation Globaltee in October last year, which laid the foundations for the bust earlier this week. Of the 48 males and 10 females arrested, three are suspected of being connected with various cases in Hong Kong, police said. A further 15 suspects are still at large.
Some of the syndicates had been operated like call centres, with the fraudsters working out of small cubicles with computers, Purisima said.
Sanjay Virmani, director the Interpol Digital Crime Centre based in Singapore, said the victims were from Asia, Europe and the United States.
He said that the extortionists had been tracked down using evidence from computers and intelligence from police.
Issuing a stern warning to those still engaged in cyber extortion in the Philippines and elsewhere, Virmani said: “You had better be prepared for the consequences of your actions because, as you can see, we have made a commitment to work together.
“You will be caught and you will be held accountable for your actions.”
In Scotland, one teenage victim committed suicide last year after being blackmailed by the syndicate.
Scotland’s police officer Gary Cunningham said he was representing the 17-year-old boy’s family in tracking down those responsible for leading him to his death.
The boy’s family was “extremely supportive... in bringing to justice to individuals out there who have fallen victims to these crimes,” he said.
Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa, chief of the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group, said he could not specify the amounts extorted from the victims, but said they ran into millions of pesos.
“This is not an issue directly involving the Philippines exclusively,” British Ambassador to Manila Asif Ahmad said.
“Cybercrime is international, and is an international problem, it respects no nationality or borders. We are all potential victims of cybercrime, none of us are immune.”
Follow Bryan on Twitter @bryanhimself