MANILA, November 24, 2003 (STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - If necessity is the mother of invention, then the Internet must have been made for Metro Manilans to warn each other about criminals. Crime is the biggest scourge of the big city, and all other problems like traffic, dirt and politics are but its offshoots. Hardly a week passes than a new victim relates on the Net the latest modus operandi in which he was trapped. It seems that they see no recourse in reporting to the police, and find poetic justice only in hoping that no one else falls prey.

Some of the most recent accounts are about evil cabbies. A woman is riding a taxi in Pandacan, Manila, when her driver slows down for a man in boxer shorts waving them to the curb. The cabbie powers down the passenger window and, as if on cue, the man grabs the womanís handbag then darts into an alley. The cabbie offers to take the victim to the police station, but she knows better than to be taken for another ride.

The week I received that e-mail, a female friend told me she was robbed the same way in that vicinity, and her sister was too a month earlier.

Another woman, a former newspaper reporter, was with her baby in a cab, too, when the driver, who was wearing an anti-SARS surgical mask, put a funny-smelling car freshner by the aircon vent. She fell asleep and woke up on a sidewalk with the baby on her lap. Her wallet, cellphone and bag of groceries were gone.

A businessman was riding a taxi home late one night when the cabbie stopped along a dark stretch of C-5 in Pasig. The driver said he was just going to lend some tools to another cabbie whose taxi was stalled. The businessman was about to call home on his cellphone when someone knocked him out with a hard object. Passersby found him sprawled on the pavement, almost naked, half an hour later.

In all those stories, the usual preventives like locking the doors or keeping windows closed or calling home apparently didnít work. So they just wrote about it, in the hope of depriving the criminals of more victims.

Another e-mail was by a doc who was driving home with his wife one rainy night when their car stalled at the corner of Buendia Avenue and South Luzon Expressway in Makati. Just when he was able to restart the engine within seconds, a tow truck appeared from nowhere and the crew started chaining up his car. He protested as the towers menacingly yelled that he had obstructed traffic. Yet it was past midnight. They banged the car and demanded money, but let the couple off only when the wife said sheíll call her dad, a retired general.

More than a dozen e-mails this year were about mashers in crowded metro traincars. The Light Rail Transit has designated all-women coaches during rush hours, but these apparently havenít been much of a solution. Some of the
e-mailers wished for severed hands as better deterrents.

A few other narratives were about ATM scams. An automated teller machine would eat your card after banking hours, so you decide to just retrieve it in the morrow. Unknown to you, a gang has set you up for a modus called the Lebanese Loop. They have inserted a cardboard packet in the card slot, so the ATM canít read the PIN that you punch in. You think either your card or the machine is malfunctioning. When you leave, the gang pulls out the packet, reinserts your card, and punches in the PIN that theyíve watched you doing. All your deposits are wiped clean.

And if by chance itís the Lebanese Loop that malfunctions, the thieves will simply punch you and grab your cash after youíve made a withdrawal.

There are also about scams at malls. One involves burly vendors with thick southern accents forcing the victim to buy pirated VCDs after perusing the cover jackets too long. Another is about burly men pretending to be undercover cops who frisk the victim to "discover" a sachet of white powder in his pocket. In both instances, the victims shelled out thousands of pesos after being "escorted" to the nearest ATM.

There were a couple of abduction stories last September. Crack police units investigated both and verified them to be, fortunately, only elopements of young lovers.

But the scary ones were about crack police units doing the preying. A prominent businessman and a former congressman signed their names in separate e-mails about being stopped on Ortigas Avenue late at night by uniformed cops who identified themselves from the Traffic Management Group-notorious for "salvaging." They were gruffly told that their cars were in the stolen list, so they had to proceed with the cops to Camp Crame for further investigation. In both cases, the narrators said they had to hand over P5,000 to be let off. Their prominence or position didnít matter.

And the latest is from an airline executive who was stuck in traffic along Quirino Avenue in Manila. He was alone in the car listening to the radio; doors locked, windows up. A man knocked on the right window, thus distracting him. Suddenly a cohort picked the lock on the driverís door and pried it open. With knife in hand, the man demanded for his cellphone. The other man got into the car, rummaged through the glove compartment, and found a pocket computer. The victim fought back and the knife grazed his chin. The thieves fled when the driver of the adjacent car got down to check what was the matter.

Very near the place is a station with the huge letters, PULIS. The executive never bothered to check if there was anybody inside. He proceeded to office and pounded his story on his computer keyboard.

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Catch Linawin Natin, Mondays at 11 p.m., on IBC-13.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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