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Philippines hunts new suspects in new 'sextortion' ring

Philippine police arrested eight suspects and are hunting more in connection with an Internet extortion racket that has victimised hundreds of people in Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau, an official said on Saturday (Aug 23).

MANILA: Philippine police arrested eight suspects and are hunting more in connection with an Internet extortion racket that has victimised hundreds of people in Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau, an official said on Saturday (Aug 23). This is the second large-scale arrest of suspects allegedly for "sextortion" - using the Internet to lure foreigners into sending them compromising material which they can use for blackmail, said Jhoanna Fabro, spokeswoman of the national police anti-cybercrime division.

The eight suspects were arrested and five minors taken into custody following a raid on Thursday in towns just outside Manila, she said. But Fabro warned that an undetermined number may have escaped before the raid. "There are other targets but we weren't able to get them," she told AFP.

About 400 people from Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau were targeted by the group and the arrests were made due to complaints from victims, Fabro said. The suspects operated from towns in Bulacan province, about 30 kilometres (17 miles) from Manila. They used social media websites such as Facebook to meet people overseas and then used video call services such as Skype to engage in "cybersex," the police said.

"Unknown to the victim, these acts were recorded. Once the suspect captured sufficiently lewd video footages, he/she would stop the call instantly. Immediately, the victim would receive messages ... from the suspect, threatening the victim that his lewd acts were video recorded with a video link to prove it," the cybercrime division said in a statement.

The suspect would then demand the victim pay a huge amount or the footage would be made public on social media or even sent to the victim's friends or relatives, the division said. Each victim would usually be forced to pay about US$30,000 (S$37,500) but Fabro said she could not immediately give a figure for the total gained from the "sextortion".

Initially, the group used women but later recruited five minors who were taught to lure other victims. The minors have since been turned over to social workers, said Fabro adding that the suspects would be charged with human trafficking along with extortion.

Fabro also said they were still investigating whether this new group was related to a larger but similar "sextortion" operation that was broken up by police in May. In that case, dozens of people operating from industrial-sized call centres were arrested after allegedly blackmailing hundreds of people around the world, luring them on social media in order to get sexually explicit information or images. One of their victims was a 17-year-old boy in Scotland who committed suicide last year.

This newest operation "is more mobile. If they have a strong enough Internet connection, they just do it from their homes," Fabro said.

Interpol has warned that "sextortion" has emerged as a major concern in recent years as criminals take advantage of more people using social media and greater mobile Internet access via smartphones.

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