Online libel tops cybercrime cases in the Philippines for 2016

MANILA, Philippines – From 2013 to 2015, online scams consistently topped the list of most common cybercrimes reported to the Philippine National Police-Anti-Cybercrime Group (PNP-ACG).

But in 2016 – a year of heated political debates that also took place in cyberspace – online libel emerged as the top complaint of Filipino internet users, with 494 complaints recorded compared to 311 recorded in 2015. It comprised 26.49% of the 1,865 cybercrime complaints for 2016.

Meanwhile, online scam complaints came in at second place, with 444 complaints in 2016, up from the 334 complaints recorded in 2015.

Rounding up the top 5 complaints were identity theft, online threats, and violation of the anti-photo and video voyeurism act.

The number of complaints on online threats, online scams, and identity theft has also been increasing since 2013, based on data from the PNP-ACG.

From double-digit figures in 2013, the numbers have been steadily rising to 3-digit figures until last year.

Common modus

According to PNP-ACG Assistant Chief PSupt Jay Guillermo, online threats and libel complaints mostly make use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But threats made using cellular phones, like the “gun for hire” modus operandi reported in recent months, also fall under their scope of investigation.

In this extortion scheme, a caller purports to be a hired assassin tapped to kill the victim and his family.

The alleged killer would then supposedly have a change of heart and would offer to call off the operation if the victim pays up.  

To some victims, the caller sounds believable because he would often have personal information on the victim to back up his claims. But Guillermo pointed out that this information could be easily obtained online.

On social media, Guillermo said those who reported receiving online threats also tend to know the person harassing them, having been in a previous relationship or involved in some degree of affinity.

Difficulty in getting evidence

How long does it take to investigate cybercrime complaints? According to Guillermo, the process differs on a case-to-case basis, and can also be dependent on the evidence gathered by investigators.

This is why complaints involving money – such as in online scams – and those with photographic evidence – such as photo and video voyeurism – tend to be easier to solve because of the wealth of evidence that could be obtained.

Online threat complaints can take months, such as in the case of climate action advocate Renee Karunungan. In May last year, she filed 34 complaints against social media users who harassed her online because she wrote a post critical of then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte. 

Karunungan received hate messages on her Facebook account, with strangers wishing death on her and her loved ones, and some even threatening rape. (READ: 'Sana ma-rape ka': Netizens bully anti-Duterte voter)

Eight months since the cases were filed, however, Karunungan said the cases remain under investigation.

For online threats and online libel, Guillermo said evidence-gathering tends to be difficult without help from telecommunications companies and internet service providers (ISPs).

“In investigating online threats, we can't get details from telcos. Especially if [the phones used are] prepaid, it’s very hard to get information,” Guillermo said.

ISPs too do not readily provide information without a court order. But to get a court order, police would first need evidence to back up their request.

“In terms of cooperation with telcos and ISPs, we don’t have a positive reply, they’re always asking for a court order. But the requirement for a court order is having evidence before filing a case,” Guillermo said.

What it takes 

Despite this, Guillermo said cyber cops still have their own ways of investigating leads. In cases of child pornography, for instance, Guillermo said the PNP gets tips from foreign intelligence networks.

Securing digital evidence is also a challenge for the police, since it’s easy to delete incriminating posts and messages. While victims can provide screenshots of their conversations, Guillermo said investigators must do the evidence-gathering so that these would be admissible in court.

Clearing cases

Not all complaints lodged with the PNP-ACG result in an arrest, especially if they involve online threat or libel.

In these cases, Guillermo said victims usually file a complaint just to have a record of the case. The evidence gathered by investigators is then turned over to prosecutors, who take charge of the case.

At this level, getting results may take months, and some victims choose to withdraw especially if money is not involved in their complaints.

Of the 1,804 complaints recorded by the PNP-ACG between January to November 2016, only 4.66% – 84 cases – have reached the prosecutor's office. 728 cases (40.35%) have been cleared or closed, while 928 cases (51.44%) remain under investigation. 

Meanwhile, 40 police operations last year resulted in the arrest of 150 individuals, most of whom were involved in extortion, cybersex operations, and violation of the anti-photo and video voyeurism act. These operations resulted in the filing of 61 cases and the rescue of 6 minors.

With cybercrime cases on the rise, Guillermo advises the public to exercise caution online and to immediately report cases to the cybercrime units or to local police. (READ: How to protect your computer vs cyberattacks– Rappler.com