Escudero: Government must update laws to impose harsher penalties for online scammers

Senatorial aspirant and Sorsogon Governor .Francis ‘’Chiz’’ Escudero on Thursday, Jan. 27 said the country should update its laws to impose harsher penalties for online scammers as another scam affecting public school teachers with payrolls in government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines (Landbank) was reported.

“Phishing scammers have become bolder and more sophisticated, exploiting the lack of digital literacy among Filipinos. Often, as in the case of Landbank, blame is passed on to the victims of scams who not only have to contend with the loss of money but also with the loss of confidence in the institutions that hold their monthly earnings and hard-earned savings,” Escudero, who once headed the Senate Committee on Banks and Financial Institutions, said.

He said the next Congress should make it a priority to amend the Access Devices Regulation Act of 1998 and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 to increase jail term and fines for hackers and scammers, especially those involved in socially engineered schemes such as phishing, smishing (SMS phishing), and vishing (voice phishing).

At least 20 public school teachers from Metro Manila, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Mimaropa, Bicol, and Western Visayas have reported losing money in their Landbank accounts, but the bank insisted that its digital infrastructure was secure and that the teachers fell victim to phishing scams.

Phishing involves the theft of personal or sensitive information by hacking, hijacking data, and using another person’s online identity, to commit fraudulent acts, crimes, or conduct unauthorized business.

Violation of the Access Devices Regulation Act carries an imprisonment of 6-20 years and a fine of P10,000 or twice the value obtained through illegal means. Access devices include account numbers, personal identification number, telecommunications service or equipment and other identifiers that can be used to steal anything of value or initiate a fund transfer.

The Misuse of Devices under the Cybercrime Prevention Act, meanwhile, has a fine of not more than P500,000 and/or 6-12 years in prison.

“Online scams should be treated as major criminal offenses and should carry a penalty that is severe enough to make scammers think twice about victimizing hard-working Filipinos. The government is constantly pushing for a digital economy so legislators also need to push for appropriate sanctions for criminals within that economy,” Escudero said.

A 2021 study by the Global Consumer Pulse revealed that 44 percent of Philippine-based consumers have been targeted by digital fraud from January to March 2021 while attempts against enterprises rose by 31 percent due to increased digital transactions during the lockdowns. Attempted fraud against telecommunication companies in the Philippines also increased ten-fold, to 1,108 percent.

“Just recently, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said it did not consider the lack of public confidence as a constraint to the use of online transactions, which to me shows how disconnected the BSP is from reality. Depositors are anxious because of all the ways they can lose their money to scammers,” Escudero said.

“You even have this new modus, the SIM swap, which has robbed some people of millions. We do not know anymore how to keep our accounts safe. How can you be confident when every month you hear about people losing their money in banks?” he said.