Strip...& pay

It started with an invitation to a Skype conversation with an attractive Filipina called Sheila Fabian. It then progressed to online sex.

After the second rendezvous, on Nov 5, Hong Konger "Jay" was sent nude photos and videos of himself - and a demand for money.

"The suspects threatened to upload the nude photos and obscene acts of the victim on Facebook and YouTube," recounted Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group director Gilbert C. Sosa. "The threat prompted the victim to agree to their extortion demand."

But Jay did not take it lying down. He complained to the Philippine consulate in Hong Kong on Jan 27, and it helped trigger a sting operation, reported the Manila-based Journal Online.

Last week, a joint task force called Operation Strikeback, led by Interpol and the Philippine authorities, netted 58 Filipinos - 48 men and 10 women - for their alleged involvement in what has been dubbed "sextortion".

Also seized were more than 200 items including computers or tablets, mobile phones, ATM cards and remittance receipts.

Operating out of call centre-like facilities in northern Philippines, the suspects allegedly created fake Facebook and Skype accounts and masqueraded as attractive women from the Philippines, South Korea or Japan to ensnare victims. Their modus operandi includes stripping in front of a webcam and inviting their prey to do the same.

Victims over the past couple of years number in at least the hundreds, and hail from Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, the United States and Britain. Agencies from these places were also involved in helping to gather intelligence for the operation.

Among the victims of what is dubbed "Naked Chat Blackmail" here, 638 are from Hong Kong.

Five of them are women, say the Hong Kong police in response to Sunday Times queries. Victims range from a 14-year-old student to a 58-year-old. Of them, 20 per cent paid up, yielding a total of HK$2.4 million (S$388,000). Showing that the suspects took what they could, the amounts extorted ranged from HK$128 to more than HK$100,000.

Yesterday, the Philippine government warned that crackdowns on such syndicates will continue. Those caught last week, it said, represented only the tip of the iceberg.

"The apprehension of the 58 suspects allegedly involved in sextortion activities is a product of our continued coordination with other law enforcement agencies like the Interpol," said deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte. "We hope that this sends a strong message that we do not tolerate exploitation in our shores."

The authorities in the region, including Malaysia and Hong Kong, advised people to be wary of such scams. "We urge the people to be vigilant as they make friends online, to prevent falling prey to criminal groups," said the Hong Kong police.

"Sextortion" is the latest variant on the age-old "honey trap". In Hong Kong, using illicit sex - or the promise of it - to extort money has its own colloquial name, wong geuk gai, which means to catch a yellow-legged chicken. It came about because farmers in south China would catch roosters stealthily while they were copulating by identifying them by the shade of their legs - a deeper yellow than that of hens.

Mr Stephen Char, a former anti-corruption investigator, said it was common for triad members to extort money by getting women to seduce victims, and then bursting into the hotel rooms to accuse them of having affairs with their wives or girlfriends before demanding that they pay up or get beaten up.

Today, the widespread use of smartphones to surf the Internet - at 96 per cent, Hong Kong has the highest number of such users in Asia-Pacific - could have made residents more vulnerable to the online version of such scams, he said.

The police did not respond to queries on the number of such cases. But in response to growing cybercrime, they set up a Cyber Security Centre in December 2012. They conceded in a report last year that policing of cybercrime is a "somewhat vexed and neglected area".

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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