PART 2: Travel and tourism in a post-pandemic era: The sunny and dark side
This is the conclusion of a two-part special report on scammers targeting small tourism players in Cebu. Read the first part by clicking this link.
Overpayment scams, particularly cheque-based overpayment scams, are among the most common types of fraudulent activities on the internet, the Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) said.
Businesses selling products and services online, and through classified ads, are often vulnerable to overpayment scams or online refund scams, they said.
Here in Cebu, while multiple resorts, vacation rentals, and other similar establishments have begun issuing notices about the fraudulent activities of a Facebook user identified as Mariyah Nhame, and her various aliases, no complaint has been made yet before the Provincial Tourism Office, and the National Bureau of Investigation in Central Visayas (NBI-7).
“It’s saddening to learn about these types of scams when the people they’re targeting are actually doing an honest living,” said Maria Lester Ybañez, provincial tourism officer.
Special Agent Maria Contessa Lastimosa of NBI-7 also shared the same sentiments with Ybañez.
Lastimosa has likened overpayment scams with the more common romance scams, saying both are products of ‘social engineering fraud’ that manipulate and exploit how people act and think.
“These scams prey on our emotions, and sometimes, our vulnerability… For example, romance scams, they’re just one of the cruelest types of fraud. They leave you heartbroken and in the literal sense, broke,” Lastimosa described.
The sunny side
Reports about scammers like Mariyah came at a time when demand for travel, locally and internationally, is rebounding after two years of lockdowns.
Central Visayas, where Cebu belonged, welcomed close to 1 million tourists between January to June 2022.
“We’re getting stronger and getting more visitors… The comeback of our Pasigarbo sa Sugbo was a big success. Our LGUs (local government units) are alive again. We’re also reopening exhibits and expos. We’re very much open now,” Ybañez said.
In the ‘new normal’ of traveling, experts are anticipating an era dominated by electronic payments and online bookings, both of which can facilitate a frictionless and more flexible purchase journey.
Data from Google showed that the number of travelers researching, planning, booking, and navigating their trips online continues to grow.
“Digital is embedded across travel journeys,” the search engine giant said on its e-Conomy SEA page which monitors and provides insights into the digital economy of Southeast Asian markets like the Philippines.
It was a result of the rapid shift to digital as COVID-induced lockdowns and other restrictions forced everyone to stay indoors,
Ybañez, for her part, agreed that tourism stakeholders in Cebu were looking at a digital future.
In fact, the provincial government had already anticipated this back in 2020, she added.
The province’s top tourism official cited the Capitol’s Online Portal as one of the best practices they had implemented in terms of digitalizing travel and tourism services here.
“That’s why we had our portal when we reopened (to local tourists) in 2020… We (Cebu province) were also the first to adopt that one (digital era),” Ybañez said.
It can be recalled that the province, when it decided to relax border controls for domestic tourists in mid-2020, introduced its Online Portal.
A website dedicated to hosting tourism excursions in Cebu province, it had functions that resemble other popular travel booking applications and services like Klook, KKDay, or TripAdvisor. Guests can view and book available dates, and pay for their reservation through its payment system or in selected payment centers.
When a booking on the Online Portal is successful, it will automatically send an electronic receipt and a radio frequency ID (RFID), the latter of which guests have to present upon arrival at their destinations.
“At that time, we had to control the number of tourists going to Cebu. And that is why we had our Portal to monitor everything,” said Ybañez.
The site was pulled down in 2021 as Cebu province braced for an increasing influx of tourists.
But it had been replicated, or parts of it, by several local tourism offices and stakeholders, signaling their willingness to embrace the benefits and convenience of the digital realm, Ybañez added.
“It helped our local government units (LGUs) to find more efficient ways to accommodate tourists and promote their destinations. Some of them have even started their own online portal,” she said.
Another technological innovation Cebu province is pushing in a post-COVID setting is the use of virtual tours.
Virtual tours, Ybañez described, could provide a more enriching experience, especially for those who had been planning to try certain tourism activities or visit destinations.
The dark side
The digital world, like almost every aspect of life, also has its own share of disadvantages. Among them is the prevalence of scams.
The Philippines, with a growing digital economy, is not spared by these threats.
Analysts from credit agency TransUnion Philippines, in its 2022 Global Digital Fraud Trends Report, revealed that the travel and leisure industry is the most affected when it comes to online fraud.
Online scams targeting the travel and leisure sector grew in 2021, at a year-on-year (YoY) change of 69.1 percent.
During the second half of 2021, the Philippines was gearing up for the resumption of leisure travel, with the industry observing a bullish outlook and preparing for huge changes, including a digital-first mindset among travelers.
“It cannot be denied… the internet is really an easy avenue for scammers and other cyber-related crimes,” said Ybañez.
While no formal report had been filed before their office regarding Mariyah’s scams, and other similar crimes, Ybañez said they had been proactively reminding and warning stakeholders here about the presence of fraud.
Their office also came up with a Complaint Form. Anyone who encounters scammers like Mariyah can file a report by filling up and submitting the Complaint Form to the Provincial Tourism Office.
Ybañez said they had been distributing the Complaint Form, but so far, none came back with any leads or information about the presence of scams targeting tourism players in Cebu.
“We have already prepared for this – that scams are now part (of life). While it’s really saddening to learn these scams exist, we assure the public that we’re doing our best to educate and equip stakeholders with knowledge on how to protect themselves,” she added.
When the pandemic began, enforcers at the NBI-7 had observed a sharp rise in complaints and reports of cyber-related crimes, including cyber libel.
Lastimosa, in a separate interview, said they estimated around 80 percent of their investigation nowadays involved crimes taking place on social media platforms, and the internet in general.
“We handle around two cases related to cybercrimes per day,” said Lastimosa, who led the agency’s team in tracking down a woman from Mindanao accused of posing as the governor of Cebu to dupe unsuspecting netizens.
But so far, NBI-7 has yet to encounter a case of an overpayment scam.
According to Lastimosa, the most common types of online fraud they had investigated were romance scams and investment scams.
“Cybercrimes are not new. Even before the pandemic, we have been receiving complaints about these scams already. But what’s certain here is that the pandemic worsened (the) cybercrimes,” said Lastimosa.
“And that’s expected. As more and more people turn to the internet, especially during lockdowns, more and more cybercriminals also turn up,” she added.
In order for tourism players, as well as other business owners and regular netizens, to guard themselves against scammers like Mariyah, below is a list of red flags they should note, based on CDN Digital’s interview with NBI-7 and the Provincial Tourism Office.
Red Flag No. 1 – Dummy Accounts
Both Ybañez and Lastimosa advised resort owners to always check the profile of the client they were dealing with, especially those requesting a refund or any kind of pecuniary transaction.
In particular, they should determine whether the client is using an authentic or dummy account on social media sites.
Dummy accounts can be a lot of things, but they are often characterized as ’empty profiles’, with little to no content or information about the account holder. An empty, new Facebook account an employee created solely for work purposes can be considered a dummy account.
However, dummy accounts can be used as tools for carrying out online scams.
The Facebook profiles of Mariyah, Jennifer, and Eje’zzie are empty, except for a few quote cards that anyone can grab through Google Images.
“Blank walls (timelines) are a dead giveaway for a fake account. If your possible ‘new friend’ has either no activity or just a few likes – then be suspicious!” reads a portion of MacAfee’s blog entry about spotting dubious social media accounts.
Red Flag No. 2 – Urgency
Online scams like the ones committed by Mariyah, Jennifer, and Eje’zzie share something in common – they needed the money for an emergency like a child in a hospital or a remittance for a family member.
Forms of communication that invoke a sense of urgency are key factors in committing online fraud like romance scams. Case in point, victims of romance scams are often urged, or worse, forced, to pay for something like airplane tickets. Scammers do this by manipulating their victims’ emotional responses to dire situations.
Business owners, in turn, are told to ‘sleep on these persistent requests about emergencies’ until their bank will confirm that the transfer have been indeed successful.
Red Flag No. 3 – Communicating Out of the Platform
Authorities also discouraged owners of resorts, hotels, and other similar establishments to communicate with clients outside the platform where the reservations or bookings were made.
Otherwise, it would be difficult to trace the real identity of the scammer. Scammers often lead their victims to contact them in third-party apps or channels to minimize any trail that leads back to them.
Experts from NBI-7 tagged online fraud like overpayment and romance scams as examples of social engineering.
Social engineering is a ‘manipulation technique that exploits human error to gain private information, access, or valuables’, according to cybersecurity expert Kaspersky.
It can happen both in-person and online. When the pandemic came, researchers described it as an ‘eat-all-you-can buffet’ opportunity for social engineers.
“Unlike other attacks that take advantage of flawed security infrastructures, social engineering targets the human aspect. Our behavior, our attitude so they (hackers, scammers) can manipulate, and gain control of how we think and how we act,” explained Lastimosa.
Among the most common kinds of social engineering found on the internet included phishing, baiting attacks, physical breach attacks, and scareware attacks, to name some.
“And the best way to protect ourselves from social engineering attacks is to educate ourselves. That in order to avoid being scammed, it must start from us,” Lastimosa said.
Here are some of the suggestions from the Provincial Tourism Office and NBI-7 to help small tourism players in Cebu shield themselves against scams and other online frauds.
- Do not release refund immediately, and always verify with the bank if the client’s transfer was successful. If they continually insist that they have already paid, inform them that the bank may take some time in reflecting the amount on your account.Depending on the nature of the bank, the transfer may take between 0 minutes to five banking days. Wire transfers from abroad are usually processed between three to five banking days.“If they threaten to sue, you can always show them the list or summary of your most recent transactions to prove that you were not lying. You can also tell them to inform their bank to check if there’s any error from their end,” said Lastimosa.
- Stick to your rules, and do not violate your own Terms & Conditions. Business owners and managers are reminded to follow the rules and regulations they implemented, especially when it comes to issuing refunds. “When somebody wants a refund, inform or remind them that there’s a process. We understand these processes will really take time but they are designed so to protect both the welfare of the establishments and the guests,” Ybañez pointed out.
- Be vigilant & observant. Always take time to verify things and ensure they undergo the right processes. Ask around when in doubt, and do not hesitate to run a quick background check on the client requesting a refund.
- Share information among stakeholders so more will be made aware of the fraudulent activities running on the internet.
When designer Francis Sollano received a refund request from Mariyah, he was on the other side of the globe. Three days later, he lost close to P15,000 from overpayment and online refund scams that Mariyah and Jennifer initiated.
For his part, Sollano said he had already reported the incident to the Department of Tourism (DOT) and planned to file a formal complaint soon.
“I’m really grateful that the DOT has been really accommodating and responsive to my concern…While P15,000 may not be a huge amount for us, (but) what if other small business owners encounter the same scam? Imagine your hard-earned money practically and virtually being stolen,” he said in Cebuano.
Miranda, like Sollano, decided not to take action against Mariyah and Eje’zzie. The resort manager also shared the same sentiments with the designer on why they decided to share what they had been through.
“Because we want everyone to be aware of this type of scam going on, and we hope this can be prevented, and maybe, put to an end soon,” said Miranda in Cebuano.
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