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Hontiveros: Bamban POGO hub possibly being used for surveillance, hacking of gov’t websites

Senator Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday said the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operator (POGO) hub in Bamban, Tarlac that was earlier raided over suspected illegal activities may be possibly involved in surveillance activities and even the hacking of several government websites.

In a hearing of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality, Hontiveros, who chairs the panel, raised concerns that POGOs are now possibly being used to spy on the government, threatening national security. 

“I was very disturbed to hear that there is persuasive information from the intelligence community stating na itong Bamban complex na ito ay ginagamit for surveillance activities at ang mga ilang nabalitang high profile cases of hacking of our own government websites ay traceable sa complex na ito,” the lawmaker said. 

(I was very disturbed to hear that there is persuasive information from the intelligence community stating that this Bamban complex is being used for surveillance activities and that some reported high profile cases of hacking of our own government websites are traceable to this complex.) 

Hontiveros was referring to the 10-hectare compound of Zun Yuan Technology Incorporated, a licensed POGO located in the Baofu compound in Bamban, which was raided in March for alleged illegal activities that include crypto and love scams.

More than 800 Filipinos and foreign nationals, including Chinese, Malaysians, and Vietnamese, were rescued in the raid. 

Citing information from the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC), Hontiveros also said that the Philippines has become one of the fastest growing hotspots for scams in the entire world. 

“According to our colleagues in PAOCC, halos lahat po ng malawakang imbestigasyon on cyber fraud and cyber scams sa mundo, may nexus sa Pilipinas (almost all large-scale investigations on cyber fraud and cyber scams in the world have nexus to the Philippines). Ibig sabihin [this means], there is some kind of traceable connection to the Philippines,” she said. 

“Halo-halong kalamay na ang scams, national security threats, human trafficking (are all mixed up). If these scam hubs are so lucrative, hindi na ito titigil (it will not stop). This will just grow and grow. And before we know it, we will be faced with a threat to our national security like nothing we have ever seen before,” she added. 

During the same hearing, Hontiveros also questioned why Police Colonel George Buyacao, the police official who spearheaded the raid of the Bamban POGO complex, was transferred to do a different assignment. 

Buyacao was the former head of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) in the National Capital Region, the agency that led the investigation and applied for a search warrant for the POGO hub. 

PAOCC Undersecretary Gilbert Cruz said that he only saw Buyacao’s relief order on the website of the Philippine National Police (PNP), with no reason stated as to why. 

“Since they are now assigned in far-flung areas like Mindanao and Visayas, kailangan papupuntahin pa namin sila to Metro Manila through eroplano. Ang kinakatakot lang namin dito baka masira ang kaso kung hindi kaagad agad makakarating for the hearing during the trial,” Cruz said. 

(Since they are now assigned in far-flung areas like Mindanao and Visayas, we have to send them to Metro Manila via plane. We’re afraid that this case might be ruined if they won’t be able to come here immediately for the hearing during the trial.)

Hontiveros also continued to question the possible involvement of the local government of Bamban, specifically Bamban Mayor Alice Guo, to the operations of the raided scam hub. 

Guo, a first-time mayor, reiterated that she has no involvement in the POGO hub. She, however, admitted that she is a former incorporator of Baofu Corporation which owns the compound, but said she let it go before she entered politics.  

“Hindi ako konektado at hindi po ako operator, hindi po ako protector or coddler po ng POGO. Wala po akong kinalaman sa kanilang operation at saka kahit anong gawin sa loob at labas po ng POGO,” the mayor said. 

(I’m not connected, I’m not an operator, I’m not a protector or coddler of POGO. I have nothing to do with their operation and anything they do inside and outside of POGO.) 

Last month, Guo had already denied accusations she abetted the alleged illegal activities of Zun Yuan Technology Incorporated, which included human trafficking and illegal detention.

This, after Senator Sherwin Gatchalian alleged Guo’s possible involvement with the POGO hub, citing a Sangguniang Bayan Resolution indicating that the mayor—who was then a private citizen—supposedly applied for the license to operate the Hongsheng Gaming Technology Inc.

Hongsheng was raided in February 2023. The same compound was then used by Zun Yuan Technology Inc., the company that was also raided in March.—AOL, GMA Integrated News