MANILA: Philippine authorities have warned the public to be wary of the criminal use of cryptocurrencies after the arrest of a couple for allegedly defrauding more than 100 people who poured at least 1 billion Philippine pesos (more than $19 million) into their bitcoin investment scam.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) earlier this week presented Arnel Ordonio and his wife, Leonady — the registered owners of NewG Bitcoin Trading, which was allegedly involved in cryptocurrency trading — to the media. The couple, both in their 20s, were arrested by the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) last April 4 after an entrapment operation.
The suspects actively promoted NewG through social media and convinced people to invest with the promise that they would get large guaranteed returns on their money in the span of two weeks.
Some of their victims, however, said that in December last year they began to sense that they had been duped after they were unable to contact the suspects, who by then had posted on social media that they could no longer issue a payout to investors.
CIDG chief Director Roel B. Obusan told Arab News that complainants against the couple continue to arrive in their office, while others have reported them to the National Bureau of Investigation. “So this is really a large-scale scam,” he said.
Based on their initial assessment, Obusan said that the suspects had amassed up to 1.6 billion Philippine pesos. Some of their alleged victims have refused to file a formal affidavit of complaint. “So from those who gave their formal complaint, the money swindled by the suspects amounted to 900 million Philippine pesos,” Obusan said.
For those considering joining the cryptocurrency craze, Obusan warned: “There’s no investment that can give that much (a very high profit). If the offer seems too good to be true (they better think twice).”
Stephen Cutler, a former US FBI anti-money laundering and financial crime expert, said the biggest advantage that bitcoin scammers had was the lack of knowledge on the part of victims, “which is the case with any fraud.”
“Bitcoin is a very complex technology and unfortunately many Filipinos, or many people around the world, are not taking the time to study and to understand what it’s all about. And so they’re getting involved in it thinking that it’s easy, that it can be another get-rich-quick scheme, and it’s not,” he told Arab News.
“I personally do not recommend that people have anything to do with bitcoin or any of the cryptocurrencies at this point in time because it is so new. The technology is still evolving and we just don’t know enough about it yet to make it safe,” he said.
“It is not well regulated in any country around the world” and when an investor loses money “there is no recourse to try to get their money back,” Cutler said.
However he added that: “Bitcoin is definitely real.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Sonny Angara said that despite the country’s economic gains, there was a need to improve the financial literacy of Filipinos “to enable them to be a part of inclusive growth as well as equip them with skills that will protect them against scams.”
“Glowing reviews and optimistic projections have been heaped on the Philippine economy, particularly regarding its financial system. Opportunities abound on account of these developments but many Filipinos do not even have a basic grasp of economic and financial concepts,” Angara said.
According to the senator, the recent discovery of the Ordonios’ fraudulent bitcoin investments only illustrates that Filipinos are lacking in financially literacy as they are still falling prey to schemes that promise huge returns in a short span of time.
“This is not the first time that we have seen scams that have victimized our hapless kababayan (citizens) whose only intention is to earn legitimate income for their families. Their lack of knowledge of the financial system and investment, however, will only continue the cycle of victimization if we do not address this,” Angara said.
The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), or central bank, in an infographic distributed for the public, highlighted that “virtual currencies (VCs) are not legal tender in the Philippines since they are not issued nor guaranteed by the BSP or any government authority.”
“The BSP does not license VCs nor endorse VC as a currency or investment instrument,” it said.