Illegal Text Blasting Machines; ‘armed’ by the pols

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UNREGULATED Radio equipment like this, which is used for text messages, is sold illegally on e-commerce sites and under the nose of the National Telecommunications Commission. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines – The National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) has said it will tackle sources of illegal radio equipment such as the texting machines that a growing number of politicians or political groups are secretly using in their offices. campaigns to increase their chances in elections.

The agency, however, doesn’t have to look far.

These devices are widely available on major e-commerce portals nationwide, such as Carousell, Facebook Marketplace, Lazada, and Shopee.

More than a dozen sales ads for shoebox-sized transmitters have been shown on their platforms, although most sites started removing the products from October 8 after hearing about it. the NTC probe in the media.

The announcements were a few weeks to a few years old.

Sold under eye-catching labels such as ‘SMS Blaster Machine Campaign’, their target market was clear: politicians who were willing to use unregistered radio equipment, thus violating Republic Law No. 3846, or the Control Law. radio, and Republic Law No. 10175, or the Cybercrime Prevention Law of 2012.

Interviews with telecommunications experts, executives and even salespeople, under the guise of interest in their products, revealed illicit activity that had thrived for years and operated openly under the noses of regulators.

An executive with the telephone company, who requested anonymity for this report, told the Inquirer that these texting machines were “guns” and that their use was already widespread in small towns during the 2019 elections.

“They can, for example, usurp the [mobile] number of a candidate for mayor on the last day to say ‘I have withdrawn from the race’, ”he added.

He was concerned, however, that regulators were ill-equipped to tackle the problem.

“It’s a cat and mouse game. By the time you trace it, they are no longer there, ”he said.

NTC deputy commissioner Edgardo Cabarios told the Inquirer he was surprised that these devices were easily accessible through online shopping sites.

After reviewing the specifications for the text sandblasting machines, Cabarios said they were illegal and their suppliers were not registered with the NTC. The regulator prepares justification orders for the persons and entities that it deems responsible for the illegal sale of these devices.

“This equipment is not allowed to be bought, sold and used,” Cabarios said.

He said the only exemption was its use by the National Council for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (NDRRMC) and other authorized state agencies in emergencies and “in areas where there is an emergency.” .

100,000 SMS per hour

The possible use of such unlicensed radio equipment was in the news on October 6 after unsuspecting recipients at the Sofitel Harbor Garden tent – which was used by the Elections Commission as a place to deposit nomination papers for May 2022 polls – got a Text Explosion encouraging presidential contender Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator.

Although disowned by the NDRRMC, telecom operators and even the Marcos camp, the texts mimicked the council’s warning system, stoking fears that illicit transmitters could be used to propel disinformation campaigns while hiding their source. Text broadcast devices work by “spoofing” nearby cell phone towers or by functioning as portable cell sites that can only send and not receive data. They can send messages at a rate of up to 28 SMS per second, or 100,000 SMS per hour.

Some specialized models can broadcast messages simultaneously from different fabricated sources targeting different telecommunications networks. These are free and can reach cell phones within a radius of a few hundred meters to 2 kilometers.

The machines sell for between 200,000 and 3 million pesos per unit, which is easily affordable for politicians and businesses looking to promote themselves, according to online vendors contacted by this reporter.

A seller on Facebook said politicians looking for a national post could buy more than one of these machines while those considering a local post could get by with just one device.

“It’s mobile, so you can move around,” he said in a conversation.

“Two members of Congress have already ordered this,” he said, without giving names.

The devices do not require a SIM card, making them virtually impossible to find on cellular networks, and can operate using a range of frequencies.

Text messaging remains a major communication tool for millions of Filipinos, especially in small rural towns with poor internet connection.

“SMS (Short Message Service) enables offline connectivity at a very low cost, while most messaging applications still depend on the Internet to function. It makes texting easily accessible to everyone, ”said Rico Hernandez, CEO and founder of MyBusybee, an NTC-licensed texting and digital marketing company.

The illegal use of text broadcasting technology portrays its industrial sub-sector in a bad light, he said.

Not found

“Before, there were regular text bursts used for political campaign purposes. But then people realized you could report the number to the NTC and have it blocked, ”Democracy.Net.PH co-founder Pierre Galla said, referring to the anti-spam provisions of RA 10175.

“They (the politicians) found another way to campaign using SMS but not blocking the number because there is no SIM card,” he said.

The use of text machines and rogue cell sites also raise questions about how this equipment may have entered the country in the first place.

Since imported radio equipment requires a license from the NTC, these devices surfacing and being offered online were likely smuggled.

One seller, who claimed to have started selling such machines in 2016, said his wares originated from Malaysia.

On Lazada, another seller is openly marketing the device as an “SMS platform for the next 2022 political campaign.”

“Too many to count,” she said when asked how many units she had sold.

“We do not allow the use of our platform for the unauthorized sale of such items,” Shopee Philippines said in a statement when contacted by the investigator for comment. “We have removed these ads from the platform and have also put in place preventative measures to intercept similar attempts to sell such items on our platform.”

In an email, a spokesperson for Carousell admitted that such machines were banned and that he had “quickly removed such listings from his market.”

A spokesperson for Lazada, meanwhile, revealed that the company has launched an investigation and “will not hesitate to take strong action against parties involved in illegal activities …”

A Facebook spokesperson asked the Inquirer to provide links to illegal sandblasting machines and made no further comment. As of this writing, all of the original ads related to text sanding machines remain active on Facebook Marketplace, with two more ads appearing on Saturday.

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