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What Sam Morales Allegedly Did Was Despicable. But Was It Criminal?

Sadly, there's no law against catfishing in the Philippines.
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The internet scandal du jour is a doozy. If you’ve been spending way too much time on the internet (as many of us are during this lockdown), you’ve probably already heard about how a woman in the local creatives industry supposedly gets her kicks out of tricking trans women into getting into a relationship with a fairly good-looking guy and then ghosting them later on. 

You might think that’s pretty harmless, but not if you’ve read the long, sordid Twitter thread of user @JzanVern, the first complainant to come forward to expose the misdeeds of the alleged perpetrator, whom she identified as Sam Morales.

 

We say the first because since Monday night, when the Twitter thread raced through the interwebz to compete for attention against other news of the day (like presidential addresses and updates on COVID-19), other individuals have come forward saying that they, too, have been victimized by this Morales’ M.O.

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According to @Jzanvern, Morales accomplishes her dastardly acts by coercing an accomplice, a man later identified as Bilko Argana, into initial contact with the target, often through a dating app like Tinder. Morales could do this because the guy is supposedly a model who would ostensibly lose his job if he didn't do Morales’ bidding. 

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But—and we totally get it if you already knew where this was going—Morales had been steering this ship since before it left port. Apparently, she was the one communicating with the target, essentially assuming the identity of the guy. And it wasn’t just her. According to @Jzanmern, it was “Morales, another girl, and one of her guy friends.”

In the case of @Jzanvern, that communication was near-constant (we’re talking daily) and allegedly even extended to helping the victim out with her work as a graphic designer as well as promises to meet in person that would eventually fizzle out and not happen at the last minute. @Jzanvern said the charade went on for about eight months.

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One case is tragic but, as of Tuesday afternoon, at least six other people have confirmed that Morales had done almost the exact same thing to them, too.

Morales’ actions are disturbing and despicable, sure, but the question is, are they criminal?

Is Morales criminally liable? 

To find out, we asked Prof. JJ Disini, managing partner of the Disini Law Office. He is an associate professor and head of technology law and public policy at the U.P. College of Law.

“From the standpoint of the model, that can qualify as computer identity theft,” Atty. Disini says. “He can say he was blackmailed (into doing those things).”

As for the alleged victims and chief complainants, Atty. Disini agrees that there is no provision in Republic Act 10175, or the Cyber Crime Preventgion Act of 20120, that covers catfishing, or the act of creating a fake persona on the internet to target someone for abuse, deception, and fraud.

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However, Atty. Disini does point to RA 11313 or the so-called Safe Spaces Law.

“It’s essentially gender-based sexual harassment likely to cause mental, emotional and psychological distress,” he says.

Article 2, Section 12 of RA 11313 states:

Gender-based online sexual harassment includes acts that use information and communications technology in terrorizing and intimidating victims through physical, psychological, and emotional threats, unwanted misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist remarks and comments online whether publicly or through direct or private messages, invasion of victim’s privacy through cyberstalking, and incessant messaging, uploading and sharing without the consent of the victim, any form of media that contains photos, voice or video with sexual content, any unauthorized recording and sharing of any of the victim’s photos, videos or any information online, impersonating identities of victims of online or posting lies about victims to harm their reputation or filing false abuse reports to online platforms to silence victims.

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The penalty for offenses under this law is prison correccional (six months to six years) or a fine of not less than P100,000 but not more than 500,000, or both.

In this case, Atty. Disini says all the alleged victims can come forward and file a complaint if they so choose and present evidence to the satisfaction of the prosecutor.

According to @Jzanvern, when she asked Morales why she did it, she said it was because of childhood trauma. “It started when she was young,” Jzanvern said. “She was bullied by gay people all the time. That’s where her hatred towards the gays started.”

Could Morales theoretically use that as an excuse for her allegedly doing what she did?

“The danger of taking that defense is, in effect, she is admitting to everything,” according to Atty. Disini. “The bottom line is, even though she may have been working under this trauma, she would still need to prove that she lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and the fact that she can articulate this, that means she knew what she was doing. She needs to prove the extent of the trauma and that would be an uphill battle.

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“That, to me sounds like a dangerous defense,” he adds. “Given that at this point, they don’t know all the evidence. Right now, she’s suffering from the social consequences. No, it’s not necessarily the best place to do it, but at this time, it’s all playing out there, on social media.”

Time will tell how this whole affair will end.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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