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Digital vote buying, money mules, and the 2022 elections

April 17, 2022 Ignacio "Toting" Bunye 377 views

Ignacio BunyeOn May 9, Filipinos will go to the polls to vote in the national elections. As crucial as the elections are, the campaign period is equally critical. Candidates are stepping up their campaigns to ensure victory, and this occasionally includes vote buying and selling. It can even be said that the Philippine election season would be incomplete without such election-related offenses. This has become the norm for some candidates.

The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) defines vote buying as the act of giving, offering, or promising money or anything of value in order to induce someone to vote for any candidate. Furthermore, the Omnibus Election Code states that any individual who engages in vote buying and selling is considered guilty of an election offense. Nevertheless, vote buying remains rampant. In the May 2019 midterm elections alone, the Philippine National Police (PNP) was reported to have responded to “massive” vote buying complaints on election day.

Why is vote buying so pervasive in the Philippines? Studies on the prevalence of vote buying, especially in developing countries, point to poverty as one of the reasons some citizens are willing to sell their votes. This is why candidates take the opportunity to target poor communities.

Given the perennial nature of vote buying, we can assume that the 2022 elections might also be plagued with the same problem. This time, however, there are additional challenges: digital vote buying and money mules. The adoption of digital technology has made things more convenient for a lot of Filipinos. It is now easier to shop, send money, pay bills, and do everything online.

Although this has been beneficial, especially at the height of the pandemic, it has also resulted in the proliferation of cybercrime. We have seen an increase in cases of various online scams (i.e., phishing, card skimming, unauthorized fund transfers, etc.). Thus, the PNP and COMELEC have raised concerns about vote buying schemes done through electronic money transfer methods. The concerns are coupled with the possibility of criminals using online accounts as mule accounts. Money mules can move dirty money around through online cash transfers and use this money for vote buying and selling. This poses a different challenge, because, unlike traditional vote buying where candidates physically give out money, it is more difficult to detect digital schemes.

Fortunately, banks and financial institutions are gearing up for the fight. The Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) has also done its part by issuing an advisory reminding banks and financial institutions of their obligations under the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2001. According to the AMLC, banks must be mindful of red flags during the election period, such as large financial transactions occurring in a short period of time, transactions that seem to be inconsistent with the customer’s financial profile, unusual transactions compared with normal everyday trade, use of multiple accounts by a single transactor, and use of several money service businesses to send funds.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) has also ordered banks and financial institutions to be wary of digital vote buying schemes. According to the BSP Memorandum 2021-074, BSP-supervised financial institutions (BSFIs) must mitigate the possible use of digital channels such as online banking and mobile wallet applications in vote buying schemes.

In addition, the BSP has stated that BSFIs must be vigilant against situations where there is a concentration of account registrations in areas where vote buying is rampant, where there are large transactions during an election period, and where there are unusual transactions between accounts (i.e., many-to-one, one-to-many).

To prevent these, the BSP highlighted the need for banks to have the necessary measures in place, specifically appropriate customer onboarding processes, an effective fraud management system, and ongoing account and transaction monitoring capabilities. BSFIs are also required to submit transaction reports to the AMLC in the event of unusual transactions outlined above.

Apart from implementing measures against digital vote buying and money mules, banks such as the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) have increased their efforts to fight cybercrime in general. Last March 3, the Bankers Association of the Philippines (BAP) and the Department of Justice Office of Cybercrime (DOJ-OOC) held a learning workshop on cybersecurity to better protect the public from cybercrime.

One of the questions raised during the panel discussion was how to prevent digital vote buying through online transfers. The panel members stated that it is difficult to stop it in real-time because the purpose of the transaction is unknown. However, it is possible to detect the crime after the transaction through audit trails.

To cap the discussion, Ramon L. Jocson, Vice Chair of BAP’s Cybersecurity Committee and BPI’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), said he is “looking forward to partnering with DOJ, PNP, and NBI because the extent by which crime is being committed to our fellow citizens is beyond acceptable,” and that there is a need to come together to address these cyber threats.

Digital vote buying can never be acceptable in a democratic country like the Philippines. Banks such as BPI and other financial institutions, as well as government agencies such as the DOJ, PNP, and NBI, can and should work together tirelessly to prevent such high-tech incarnations of vote buying from becoming the norm.