By: Leandro Paralisan and Rommel Manwong
*with permission to post
The COVID-19 Pandemic - while others see this one as a dreadful crisis, others consider it as an opportunity. For instance, the criminally minded individuals see this an opportunity to commit crimes while people are in fear and in the state of chaos. It is unbearable to think that criminals and terror groups continue making profit from their criminal trade while nations are deeply in trouble, while government resources are tied up in combating the disease, while communities plagued with anxiety confronted with the thought of having to survive and live.
The COVID-19 is seen as a threat to the existence of mankind. It brings with it a multitude of sympathetic threats that we have to deal with all together. These “Threat Factors”, at a time when nations and people are embattled on the ground, also needed attention. New and overwhelming information from around limitless bounds of the internet has at this point come flooding everyday about people and countries fighting the unseen enemy. Yet criminals, with no fear, continue to be existent in between this misery, interrupting government efforts to stop the contagion.
In between the global efforts and each nation’s fight for survival against the dreadful disease, crime and terrorism are still emanating in varying terms creating havoc. When Philippine authorities are swiftly staging up measures against the contagion, a handful of these measures tend to impact on threat dynamics and existing crime landscape. This is when criminals are quick to exploit the vulnerabilities subsequent to this ongoing crisis by adapting new methods or modus operandi. Among other identified threat factors that would render significant impacts to crime and terrorism includes: Extraordinary demand for basic commodities, health care instruments, protective gears, health and pharmaceutical products; Constriction of mobility and movement of people across ECQ areas; Work at Home System when there is a surge of people pushed to work with internet, digital marketing, electronic social media platforms; Curtailed public and social activities will make criminals starve and will become innovative in engaging new crime ideas for the sake of survival; Public anxiety and fear that may render people to vulnerable to exploitation; If government fails to sustain the basic necessities up until this crisis is stable shall likely result to massive looting, robbery, theft, mugging and other crimes against persons and property.
By way of scrutiny of reports, daily news, and situational awareness analysis, the threat factors and pandemic risks associated with the COVID-19 disease are presented as follows:
Prevailing Terror Atrocities (Fighting the Enemy in Two Fronts) – At the midst of the pandemic, Philippine Terror Groups and CTG’s (Communist Terrorist Group) continue to sow fear launching relentless attacks on weaker communities, civilian targets and government forces doing humanitarian operations. This despite the unilateral ceasefire declared by the government, along with orders issued to the military and the police to stand down and focus on the fight against COVID-19. This however did not sit well with several terror groups that continued conducting armed operations. The recent killing of a Datu in Surigao Del Sur, and the reinforced calculated attacks on government troopers came as a solid proof of terror atrocities – a show of total disrespect of agreements much more to humanity.
Cyber-criminals on the Go (The Internet Opportunists) – the INTERPOL has published significant rise on cybercrimes. Cyber-criminals are seen exploiting the pandemic. The pandemic offered an opportunity for fast cash. Criminals took advantage of the high market demand for personal protection of hygiene products as noted from online links advertising items related to COVID-19 selling counterfeit surgical masks online. The seizure of more than 34,000 counterfeit and substandard masks, “corona spray”, “coronavirus packages” or “coronavirus medicine” is only the tip of the iceberg regarding this new trend in counterfeiting.
Cyber criminals are taking advantage of organizational policies “Work At Home” by launching malicious links that appear to be legitimate information from public health officials and other news sources about the growing coronavirus risk (Ewing, et.al, 2020). This instance may increase the risk as employees may use unsecured Wi-Fi networks, handle information outside of secure channels, and may use personal devices contrary to organization’s security policies. These factors doubled the risk of cybersecurity and privacy cases that could lead to ransomware infections, business email compromise, or compromise of information.
Filipino cyber criminals had their own way of competing with international counter parts that brought the rise of unscrupulous deals over the internet with volume of arrest carried out by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police. These crimes stemmed from hoarding (overpricing of essential health care products) such as alcohol, masks, temp scanners and other protective equipment thru various online platforms. There has been a noticeable rise in crimes perpetrated individually and as groups over the internet to include massive misinformation with intent to create public chaos and panic. Cyber criminals are also said to have infected the famous app “Tiktok” with spyware and phishing programs with the intent to collate personal information and unfiltered video material from millions of users who turned to “Tiktok” habit when Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was in effect.
Fake News Instigators and Con-Artists (The Craving for Chaos and Disorder) - One of the good ways to waste resources of any government is going after the authors of fake news and con-artists out to exploit people’s fear of the COVID-19. Nonetheless, such crime has in some degree effectively interfered with the focused attention needed towards the basic delivery of services and disease containment efforts. Just recently, came the arrest of a female suspect cashing in thru fake and adulterated Quarantine Passes. This on top of the arrest of another suspect who went house to house seeking for donations to fight COVID-19 and pretended to be a representative of a legitimate entity.
In some cases, fake news instigators thru various online social media platforms seemed to be on a race in releasing false information about infected persons to include death tolls in fearful numbers. Arrests were made by local police forces who are empowered to enforce provisions under the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Events of Public Health Concern Act, the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, the Data Privacy Act of 2012, and the Cyber Crime Prevention Act of 2012. The most common engines observed are Facebook and Tweeter.
The “TRAPO” Traditional Politics, (Old Habits Simply Hard to Break) – the Department of Interiors and Local Government (DILG) has received numerous complaints by communities over alleged selective distribution of relief goods and cash aids. This despite repetitive warnings directed to the Local Government Units (LGU) and local officials by the department. This happened in spite of the newly signed Republic Act 11469, also known as the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” which provides penalties to LGU officials who disobey or violate national government policies and directives during this period of national health emergency.
At the height of this pandemic, a Barangay Chairman in Lanao Del Sur was arrested on for selling Quarantine Passes to his constituents and was charged, along with other violations, including robbery extortion charges. Some LGUs also failed in implementing “Social Distancing Policies” as observed during distribution of relief goods and Quarantine Passes. This would rise an apathetic community on the anticipated cash aid distribution under the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act”.
Hoarding of Essential Products (The Greed in Human Nature) – Greed in human nature seemed prevalent specially during crisis that aggravates difficult conditions of communities. At the time when people need basic food and health care products, the stigma of doubling business profits in crisis situation becomes the immediate priority of small and large business establishments and even private individuals taking the opportunity to earn at the expense of people’s fear on COVID-19. The immediate surge of hoarders has raised a multitude of complaints from common citizens that pushed government to form “Tracker Teams” in order to monitor, apprehend and prosecute hoarders. Briefly thereafter, warrants to seize and apprehend were carried out resulting to an effective intervention to curtail this practice. A challenge however was those conducting the trade online and meet ups. Under Philippine laws, hoarding during crisis is clearly elaborated in RA 7581 or an “Act providing protection to consumers by stabilizing the prices of basic necessities and prime commodities and by prescribing measures against undue price increases during emergency situations and like occasions”. Sad but true, such practice is still being carried in smaller communities in various means and ways.
Drugs and Drug Groups (Evolving Modus Operandi and Continuity) – In the global environment, criminality to include illegal drug distribution are expected to drop down in fear of COVID-19 where people are on quarantine and business operations are ceased. The disease has somehow interrupted the law of supply and demand where market sources are imperiled. In UK, drug related crimes in some states had dropped down to 20% as police chief are pre-occupied in battling the spate of opportunistic crimes as the outbreak is on its peak. Domestically speaking, the National Capital Region (NCR) noted an 80% decline of crime rate when the ECQ was enforced.
Contrary to the above however, this is not all well the case. Anti-illegal drug operations continued in some regions of the country. For instance, Region 7 law enforcement agencies apprehended and timely dismantled the illegal drug dens of the Dante Diocson Salinda Group in Cebu City. Clearly, the fear of COVID-19 was no impediment as also gleaned from the P7.5 million drug bust jointly done by PDEA-CCPO that neutralized Circujano and Capangpangan drug network at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Two major operations followed suit that netted P7 million in Cordova, Province of Cebu and P1.56 million from separate targets in Cebu and Mandaue Cities respectively on the same month.