400,000 suspicious online transactions in aftermath of UPCB, Wirecard, RCBC cybercrimes

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By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor

The Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) reported last week a dramatic increase of suspicious online transactions.

The AMLC said that around 400,000 “suspicious transactions” had been filed so far this year, equivalent to the total number of complaints filed last year.

AMLC Executive Director Mel Racela told local media that despite the increase, it did not necessarily mean that money laundering-related crimes have also risen.

Racela said, “We reminded the public that whenever they have online transactions, ensure these platforms are not used to perpetuate fraud,” Racela said.

He said the AMLC is working with the Philippine National Police’s Cybercrime Group to investigate suspected fraudsters.

Part of the AMLC’s mandate is to probe suspicious transactions including those with no legal or trade obligation, purpose or economic justification.

The Council also examines cases where the client is not properly identified and when transaction amounts are out of proportion to the business or financial capacity of a client; characteristics/structures used to avoid AMLC reporting requirements; deviations from the profile of the client/client history and possible links to unlawful activity or offense that is about to be, is being, or has been committed.

Two recent bank-related scandals cropped up this year. The larger of the two was the collapse of the German online payment firm Wirecard, where US$2 billion went missing.

Two of the highest ranking officials of Wirecard reportedly went to the Philippines just before the company collapsed. While there was some indication that they did indeed enter the Philippines, the Bureau of Immigration had no record of their arrival.

One is said to have passed away while in the country, although there were questions about his true identity.

More recently, the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) fell victim to an online scam perpetrated by a group of Nigerians, who were apprehended last week.

The gang was able to withdraw PHP167 million (US$3.34 million) through the use of malware.

They were able to open 13 accounts last May, at the height of the government-imposed lockdown, and pulled off the cyber-heist during the June 12 Independence Day weekend.

Of the Wirecard scandal, 57 persons of interest suspected of involvement are currently under investigation, while the National Bureau of Investigation was able to apprehend last week four Nigerians and one Filipino in a condo in Muntinlupa City.

The NBI team, however, was not able to recover any of the missing cash.

The NBI is trying to ascertain how the gang was able to withdraw as much as PHP9,999,999 (roughly US$200,000) from ATM machines, when the maximum limit is only PHP20,000 (US$400) a day.

Despite the UCPB heist, Racela said the country has enough controls to prevent money laundering in the Philippines. “I will not say it is easy to conduct money laundering in the Philippines,” he said, adding, “We have enough controls now in place as compared to four years ago, when the Bangladesh (heist) happened.”

In 2016, the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) was involved in the loss of US$81 million that  had found its way to the Philippine bank through a series of global transactions. The funds belonged to the central bank of Bangladesh.

Only US$18 million has been recovered, and the rest is the subject of an ongoing case between RCBC and Bangladesh Bank.

Aside from questionable goods and services offered online, another notable crime occurring online has been identity theft, where a person gains access to another’s personal information such as credit card or ATM card access numbers to avail of loans with no intention of paying.

Others may open social media accounts under another’s name for future use, which may or may not involve financial gain.

The Bankers Association of the Philippines (BAP) warned late last year that the number of identity theft had been growing in recent years.

Fraud is one of the most frequently committed crimes using stolen identities, according to the BAP.

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