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August 19, 2023 Alfred P. Dalizon 180 views

Alfred DalizonI’M referring to the number of online scams and other illegal activities which have been discovered by authorities inside the SA Rivendell Gaming Corporation, Inc. located at No. 2741 Zamora corner Gaitos Streets in Pasay City.

At first, I thought that it is just one of the many POGO facilities raided by agents of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission, the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation for involvement in online scams.

However, latest developments have shown that this particular scam hub masquerading as a POGO facility is indeed facing a major challenge to government IT experts who now have been given the herculean task to crack the raided company’s codes which they have been using to scam people here and abroad.

It really involves more things than we thought at the beginning. Consider these issues: When it was first raided last August 1, a total of 464 Filipinos and 186 foreigners were discovered operating the hub’s numerous digital platforms.

Last Wednesday, a PAOCC-supervised operation inside the same facility resulted in the discovery of P7 million and US&6,000 in different denominations, several passports, countless Subscriber’s Identity Module or SIM cards, several credit and debit cards as well as pages of seed phrases and suspected crypto hardware wallets and/or automatic OTP or One-Time Passport generators.

Also recovered were several caliber 9mm ammunition, an ammo loader, a pair of handcuffs, a gun silencer, a long firearm’s forward grip, several electric flashlight tasers and more than 9,000 pieces of old generation i-Phones and android phones.

The recovery of these pieces of evidence have posed a major challenge to government experts tasked to crack the raided company’s codes in order to find out their other victims, earnings and secrets. It also would take a ‘whole-of-government approach’ and the help of other IT experts in the private sector to unlock the company’s secrets.

A report from the PAOCC chaired by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin showed that last Wednesday, PAOCC and NBI officers broke open all 32 cash vaults found inside the raided office on the strength of a search warrant issued by Judge Gina Bibat-Palamos of the Pasay City Regional Trial Court Branch 111.

The search warrant was issued by the Pasay City court 15 days after Judge Victoria Soriano-Villadolid of the Manila RTC Branch 24 issued the eight warrants to seize, search, and examine computer data (WSSECD) against the Pasay City-based facility which was used by the PAOCC and the NBI to storm the establishment.

I learned that under the supervision of PAOCC Executive Director and retired Police Major General Gilbert Cruz , officers broke open the 32 money vaults which yielded P7 million and US$6,000 in cash, the passports of many other Asian nationals believed to be working for the company, thousands of SIM cards, several credit and debit cards as well as pages of seed phrases and suspected crypto hardware wallets and/or automatic OTP or One-Time Passport generators.

The PAOCC likewise reported finding several pieces of evidence including live ammunition, a gun silencer, firearm accessories and electric flashlight tasers which is an indication that criminal activities are taking place inside the establishment.

Yes, it’s true. This is the first time that I have heard of a POGO company keeping handcuffs, gun silencer, live ammos and electric flashlight tasers inside their office vaults. What is the purpose of keeping these pieces of evidence?

If the owners of the raided company are foreigners, they automatically are not allowed to own and possess firearms and ammunition in the country. 2nd, Republic Act 10591 or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulations Act of 2013 says that the ‘penalty of one (1) degree higher shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully possess any firearm fitted or mounted with sniper scopes or firearm muffler or silencer.’

The discovery of several electric flashlight tasers inside one of the rooms located on the 3rd floor of the building also sends a chilling effect to the public. In the past, POGO-related kidnappings have seen a number of Asian nationals, most of them from China being abducted by their compatriots who are armed with high-powered firearms before being tortured with the use of tasers and baseball bats.

In some cases, the kidnappers have forcibly cut off the fingers of their captives in front of the camera with the use of sharp knives. The gruesome videos are then sent to the families of the victims abroad to force them to pay huge ransom amounts which actually are either payment for the expenses incurred by the victims while working with rogue POGO companies or huge casino losses.

PNP agents specifically those from the Anti-Kidnapping Group actually have rescued dozens of victims of said brutal kidnapping and torture acts over the past several years. Several Chinese nationals working for POGO companies have also been either killed or captured by the PNP-AKG.

Incidentally, the PNP-AKG has changed its leadership after former PNP Deputy Director for Investigation and Detective Management Brigadier General Cosme Abrenica swapped positions with Brig. Gen. Jun Castil last week.

Citing expert findings, the PAOCC said that the significant items found during the latest search were the 17 suspected crypto hardware wallets and/or automatic OTP generators and the seed phrases.

The PAOCC said these are ‘indications that most of the illegal proceeds of the crimes are now being laundered through digital payment platforms.”
“Fewer hard currency will be found in these POGOs as they evolve their crimes to hide their criminal proceeds,” the Agency added as it expressed apprehension over their latest discovery.

Experts described ‘seed phrases’ as 12-24 mnemonic random words that are used as passwords or codes to recover the data in a digital wallet. Once said seed phrase is logged into a crypto wallet, the criminal gains access to their victims’ digital assets such as crypto coins like bitcoin, among others.

On the other hand, Automatic OTP generators are old style hardware that predates the latest smartphones. However, their presence in the vaults could point to the possibility that the scores of old generation androids and i-phones are still used to launder criminal proceeds, the PAOCC reported.

The agency added that the ‘old style automatic OTP generators’ provide the one-time pin needed to log into the account and access the money of the victims.

The PAOCC made the revelation amid the findings that more than 9,000 old generation i-Phones and android phones were found inside the seized vaults.

“Obviously, these discoveries will pose a serious challenge to our forensic accountants and cybercrime investigators,” the PAOCC said. Last August 1, officers who raided the Pasay online scam hub caught various individuals operating digital platforms that were engaged in a number of illegal online activities such as love scams and pig butchering, online games manipulations, and other forms of online investment frauds.

A number of the mobile phones that were seized were still accepting GCASH payments from their purported victims at the time of the raid. During the conduct of interviews, the operating units were able to ascertain that the said POGO operated with an almost identical operating procedure with the previously raided POGO hub in Sun Valley Clark.

The PAOCC said they had the same character development manual as well as incentive mechanism. Their only difference was the absence of a detention and punishment facility inside the Pasay facility where the scammers are allowed to regularly go home.

What is lamentable here is that during the August 1 raid, the PAOCC discovered that one of the 464 Filipinos found working inside the Pasay online scam facility was a Filipina whom they previously rescued from a human trafficking ring in Myanmar.

During the service of the warrants last August 1, a total of 464 Filipinos and 186 foreigners were discovered operating the hub’s numerous digital platforms. Three hundred of those apprehended during the war were males while 350 were females.

This again reinforces the assertion of Senator Sherwin Gatchalian that POGO-related criminal activities in the country are likely to escalate unless the industry is expunged permanently from the country.

The lawmaker emphasized that criminal activities involving POGOs are likely to worsen if the POGO industry is allowed to continue operating in the country. “As much as we dread that situation, that possibility is not difficult to imagine. This should prompt all of us to take a stand against POGOs,” he said.

Citing official PNP data, the senator said a total of 4,355 individuals fell victim to POGO-related crimes from January 2017 to June 30 of this year. The PNP also said there were a total of 903 perpetrators in all those cases.

The POGO-related crimes include human trafficking, forcible abduction, homicide, illegal detention, kidnap-for-ransom, theft, robbery-extortion, serious physical injuries, swindling, and grave coercion, among others. Sen. Gatchalian said Chinese nationals have a total of 793 accounts for the majority of the suspects involved in these crimes,

Last June 26, the PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group also raided the compound of the Xinchuang Network Technology, Inc. in Las Piñas City where they ‘rescued’ 2,724 individuals victimized by human trafficking and online scams. Another raid in early May inside a POGO hub in Clark Sun Valley in Pampanga resulted in the ‘rescue’ of 1,090 workers, a number of them other Asian nationals.