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Senate to probe rampant text scams; House body approves SIM card bill

PONGSAWAT PASOM-UNSPLASH

By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

A SENATOR has filed a resolution seeking to investigate rampant “personalized text scams” that use spam and phishing to victimize Filipinos.

“It is alarming that while major telecommunication providers claim to have already blocked a significant number of spam and phishing text messages, the problem continues to hound many telecommunication subscribers,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian said in a statement on Monday. 

“It is clear that the steps taken by the inter-agency group to address this problem are not sufficient,” he said. “More interventions need to be done by the government to effectively stop such activities.” 

Senate Resolution 133 filed on Aug. 11 seeks help from the government to stop the spread of unsolicited text messages in the country, especially those that try to obtain a user’s sensitive information including usernames, passwords and credit card details.   

Senator Maria Lourdes Nancy S. Binay said it brought her “unexplained fear and a terrifying surprise” when she received a random text message with her name on it.

“When I received a text message on my personal phone with my name, I was so shocked because I never use my personal phone in online transactions,” she said in mixed English and Filipino. “My number is not even linked to other social media accounts.”

“Despite the passage of Republic Act 10173 or the Data Privacy Act of 2012, the personal information of citizens remain vulnerable due to lack of transparency and standards on the processing, handling and storing of personal data collected by mobile applications,” she added.

Globe Telecom, Inc. has said it had blocked about 784 million scam and spam messages from January to July. It also deactivated 14,058 scam-linked mobile numbers and blacklisted 8,973 more. 

Data from PLDT, Inc. and Smart Communications, Inc. showed they had blocked 23 million smishing text messages in three days.

“The unabated digital scams will erode the trustworthiness of electronic commerce and may reverse our shift to a digital economy,” Ms. Binay said. “It is the right of our people to have a safe digital ecosystem and it is the duty of the government to provide and secure such an environment.”

Senator Emmanuel Joel J. Villanueva said the data leak might not only lessen the trust in telecommunication companies, but also “our trust in every company or agency that we give personal data to.”

“There should be a user-friendly mechanism to make it easy to report text scams and have instant deactivation of numbers that send to multiple numbers,” he said.   

Mr. Villanueva has filed Senate Bill 366 or the Anti-Spam bill, which imposes a fine of as much as P100,000 for sending misleading links and collecting personal information without consent. It also requires the National Privacy Commission and other state agencies to catch scammers. 

Senator Mary Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares, who heads the committee on public services, vowed to fast-track the passage of the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) Card Registration bill.

“The SIM Card Registration bill is among the priorities of the Senate to be passed,” she said in a statement in Filipino.

“If we can finish the hearing on Wednesday, it’s just a technical working group next week, then maybe we can have a plenary [debate],” she said. “Hopefully, it will be passed by November. This is the timeline we see because we are still waiting for the House version.”

The senator said she had received suspicious text messages asking for money and private information, while others have tried to sell products.

The SIM Card bill will require the registration of SIM cards before activation in the Philippines, which has more than 120 million mobile subscribers. It will also require social media users to register their legal identities and phone numbers when creating new accounts.    

She earlier noted being open to discussing with her colleagues in the new Congress the provision on social media account registration, noting that it can be incorporated in the bill or as a subject of another legislation.

SIM CARD BILLA House committee on Monday approved a consolidated bill requiring the registration of all postpaid and prepaid mobile phone SIM cards.

House Bill 14 is the exact version approved in the past Congress and was refiled by Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez, Ilocos Norte Rep. Ferdinand Alexander A. Marcos and Party-list Reps. Yedda Marie K. Romualdez and Jude A. Acidre.

Ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte vetoed the bill in April after senators and congressmen included social media accounts in the coverage.

The former president found that certain aspects of state intrusion had not been defined, discussed or threshed out in the enrolled bill with regard to social media registration, the presidential palace at that time.

Under the bill, telecommunication companies will become the gatekeeper of information obtained in the registration process. No data may be divulged except in compliance with laws, upon a court order or with the written consent of the subscriber.

Any breach of confidentiality will be punished with imprisonment or payment of as much as P1 million.

“All mobile phone users have in one way or the other become victims of scam texts,” Ms. Poe said. “Stopping fraudsters is a battle we have to urgently wage together.”

Ms. Poe’s version of the bill is also the exact copy of the bicameral version ratified by both of Houses of Congress early this year.

Critics have said the measure could be used to undermine the privacy and basic liberties of Filipinos, who are vulnerable to fake news.

At the House hearing on Monday, Albay Rep. Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda said the government should simplify processes and cut documentary requirements as a first step in digitalizing their services.

He said the ultimate aim of digitalization is to avoid burdening people with unnecessary requirements such as the cedula or community tax certificate.

Meanwhile, former Privacy Commissioner Raymund E. Liboro said personalized text messages have been targeting the younger population.

“This is very alarming,” he told One News Channel. “These personalized messages are targeting individuals and they know these individuals. What is even worrisome is that they are targeting kids.”

These text messages might be coming from data brokers who are supposed to be legally conducting business with network operators and short message service casters.

“Telcos are really trying their best to block and filter these messages,” Mr. Liboro said. “It is just that criminals are always a step ahead. They really need input coming from the public so that they can block these numbers.” — with Kyanna Angela Bulan and RMDO

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