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It takes a whole society to fight online fraud

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Online digital platforms are providing services that have become potent drivers of the economy and are crucial tools for people empowerment. It is thus commendable that this administration has made digital transfor-mation its priority.

Technology, however, like any tool that is agnostic and dependent upon its use, can have a sinister side. For millions who have begun to rely on the convenience and ease with which technology can be used, there exists a downside that can be both disruptive and destructive. It can cost people their livelihood or security, and destroy an individual or even an institution’s reputation.

News of identity theft, online scams, fraud, and many other scam traps are not new to us. Many of us know somebody, or somebody who knows somebody, who has fallen victim to such schemes. Worse, we could have been victims ourselves.

These are not just anecdotal examples. Available data support the conclusion that much remains to be done in identifying, managing, and preventing online scams. For example, the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) reported that cybercrimes increased by 21.84% in the first quarter of 2024. Some 4,469 cybercrimes were recorded from January to March this year, up from the 3,668 cases during the same period last year.

Among the crimes that make up this number are online selling scams, debit and credit card fraud, as well as investment scams.

The ACG also noted a significant trend in online scams where social media accounts are breached and misused for financial or personal gain. For example, in the month of February, 89 cases of identity theft were recorded.

According to Statista, the most frequent fraud schemes targeting consumers in the Philippines as of the fourth quarter of 2023 were phishing (50%), smishing (43%), money/gift cards (37%), third-party seller scams on legiti-mate online retail websites (34%), vishing (26%), identity theft (21%), money mule (18%), account takeover (14%), unemployment insurance claim fraud (10%), and stolen credit card or fraudulent charges (7%).

Remember, too, that these are official figures based on the number of reported cases. The number is likely to be higher if we are to include unreported instances.

Against this worrisome backdrop, there have been initiatives to protect the public from online predators. The government is in its own way trying to ensure that the internet remains a safe space for its users, whether it is for educational, professional, or personal purposes. Indeed, policies must be made stronger, and implementation must be more consistent.

In these matters, it is important to remember that safeguards against scams require a whole-of-society approach. It must be an integrated system that mobilizes cybersecurity technologies, law enforcement, investigation, fi-nancial institutions, online platforms, internet service providers, sellers and consumers all in alliance against these invisible thieves in cyberspace.

A recent example of collaborative effort would be the joint initiative of Bayan Academy and CitizenWatch Philippines, together with Meta, government partners — the Departments of Information and Communications Tech-nology, Trade and Industry, Justice, and Migrant Workers, and the Securities and Exchange Commission —, and other advocacy groups through its civic education campaign “Be Wais.” The campaign seeks to increase people’s awareness of different types of scams across different sectors, and to shift their attitude toward information they encounter, and to exercise critical thinking before making any decisions.

During the launch of the campaign over the weekend, CitizenWatch co-convenor Kit Belmonte said “we must also arm ourselves with the know-how to ensure that these fraudsters, scammers and thieves do not succeed. Inevitably, given the gap, our own protection remains our personal responsibility.”

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Fred Pascual, in his statement, urged consumers to keep sharp and be careful when buying anything online. He advised online shoppers to first ensure that the seller is legitimate by checking if they have a business address, e-mail, and contact number. Second, be suspicious when the price is too cheap and to look up the business’ trade name on the DTI website to see if the business is legitimate.

Professor Francisco Enrique “Jay” M. Bernardo III, Chairman and President of Bayan Family of Foundations, emphasized that empowering both consumers and entrepreneurs through education and awareness is a key strategy for tackling the issue of online fraud and scams. A cautious attitude and a habit of staying alert can significantly reduce potential risks.

Shanti Alexander, Head of Policy Programs and Campaigns from Meta, reaffirmed the company’s continued commitment to addressing online fraud and scams in cyberspace — all aligned with Meta’s efforts to help create a responsible community of citizens.

The dark sophistication of the tactics employed by cyberthreat actors versus cybersecurity technologies is a cat-and-mouse game wherein we as the end-users of internet services are the targets. All these scammers need is a moment of carelessness, a mere touch of their click bait for their trickery to kick in and entrap their victims.

Indeed, such collaborative efforts across sectors are a potent tool in empowering the public, so that people will be able to protect themselves and not fall prey to online predators.

Technology promises to bring good to society, and it has, in so many transformative ways. But it is equally crucial to look out for malicious actors who want to exploit the efficiency and convenience of technology to deceive and unduly profit from others. In the end, only a strong, aware, and digitally prepared citizenry could effectively fight this bane.

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