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Filipinas lose passports as police raid suspected illegal money lender

09 June 2019

By Daisy CL Mandap

Philippine passports seized last year from a loan shark 

Dozens of Filipina domestic workers have taken to social media to appeal for help on how they can retrieve their passports which they pawned with an apparently unlicensed money-lending company raided by the police on Thursday, Jun 6.

One of the Filipinas who reported to the Central Harbour Front Police Station today, Jun 8, to inquire about the whereabouts of her passport was reportedly told it had been forwarded to the Wanchai station which is doing further investigation.

She named the lending company as OFC, with an office located on Des Voeux Road, Central. A receipt shown by another borrower showed the company also has offices in Wanchai and Shamshuipo.
OFC has been assuring its clients they can still get their passports back from the police if they pay up
It was not immediately clear how many Filipinos had lost their passports as a result of the raid, and whether all those held in OFC's three offices were all seized.

Consul Paul Saret, head of the assistance to nationals section, said that if the police seize passports in connection with a suspected offence, they will be kept as evidence, as what happened in at least two recent cases involving unlicensed loan sharks.

When this happens, the Consulate, in accordance with standard operational procedures, will cancel the passport and require the holder to apply for a replacement at the main passport office of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.
“Do not attempt to declare it as lost passport because the police give us a list of those whose passports are in their custody,” said Consul Saret.

He advised those who believe their passports were among those seized in the raid on the OFC offices to report to ATN immediately so they can verify the information, and get advice on what to do next.

Reports from some of the borrowers, however, indicate staff members of OFC have been giving assurance that they could still get their passports back from the police if they paid their outstanding loan amount.

A document sent to a community leader showed an appointment slip from OFC issued to one borrower, advising her to pick up her passport at the Wanchai MTR station on Wednesday, Jun 12. It was reportedly prepared by the OFC manager, a certain "Mr Wong", along with his two Filipino staff.
A more disturbing notice purportedly sent by OFC says the borrower may pick up her passport at the Police department itself, presumably the station on Arsenal Street in Wanchai.

According to this notice, titled “New Pickup Document Procedure,” the borrower must first settle the loan, then sign up for a pickup time (“maximum 10 per day”), then meet their staff who will then confirm with the police if the passport is with them. If it is, then they can go directly to the police station to pick it up.

Several others have passed on messages assuring them of the same thing, sparking confusion.

Despite repeated warnings, however, against giving any more money to OFC staff, some desperate borrowers appear ready to bite the bullet.

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One told The SUN she has been working in Hong Kong for only eight months and is scared she would be sacked if her employer found out about the loan. 

Another worried that her visa would be revoked because she no longer has the passport on which it is stamped.

One borrower was angry because staff of the company accepted her monthly payment on Jun 7, even while knowing the pawned passports were no longer with them. She asked why the police allowed OFC to continue operating after the raid.

But one got lucky because she managed to recover her passport just in time, after paying off her loan on May 27. 

A community leader who has been monitoring the situation finds it disturbing that OFC, which is not in the list of registered money lenders in Hong Kong, has brazenly given assurance that the police would give back the passports they have already seized.

Why even seize them if they can be given back at the mere intercession of a company or group that is under suspicion of having violated the law?, he asked.

A check with the Police Public Relations Bureau yielded no immediate information about the raid, nor has a press release been issued on it, unlike in similar operations in the past.

However, a spokeswoman told The SUN this could be because of the long holiday weekend, when only a few officers are on duty. She said an information on the case could be ready by Monday, Jun 10.
Securing a passport as collateral for a loan is illegal under Philippine law, but Hong Kong does not explicitly forbid it. Thus, the passports are often seized only as evidence in illegal money lending cases.

This has prompted Consul General Antonio A. Morales to call out Hong Kong authorities recently to take “a firm action” and prosecute those caught holding Philippine passports.”

Morales also noted that those who secure loans with passports are loan sharks who exact exorbitant interest payments, like the local Chinese man caught in North Point last year, who was lending money at 10% monthly interest, or 120% for one year.

OFC does not appear to have collected this much, however. A payment receipt showed by one borrower indicated she was supposed to pay $855 monthly for six months, for a loan amount of $4,500. This amounts to only 14% for the entire six-month period. A fee of $10 per day is levied for delayed payments, which also does not appear excessive.

Licensed money lenders are by law, allowed to charge a maximum interest of 60% per annum on loans.

However, one observer points out that the company has not been that upfront because first, it was not licensed; second, it does not issue loan contracts indicating the repayment terms; and third, it collects passports as collateral, among several violations.

“Withholding passports, failing to give a copy of the lending agreement, having their friends join a ‘referral network,’ and operating a money lender and (employment) agency at a non-licensed address…I’m sure there are other violations as well,” he said.

More details on the case are expected to come as the Consulate begins interviewing starting tomorrow those who lost their passports in the raid. - with a report from Rodelia P. Villar 


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