You are the proud owner of a car you bought brand-new three years ago. Since its three-year registration is about to expire, you dutifully go to the branch of the Land Transportation Office (LTO) where the vehicle was originally registered to pay for the annual renewal charges.
When you get there, however, you get stunned when you are told that your car’s original registration data are nowhere to be found in their computer’s memory. How could this happen, you tell them, when there is no question as to the authenticity of your expiring registration certificate and its accompanying official receipt? They look as stumped as you are, but before you can fly into a rage, they ask for one week to “fix” the problem (between the LTO main office and the branch office).
I personally experienced the exact same thing, to my utmost irritation, only a few weeks ago. It took the LTO 10 days before it could validly renew my registration. Now I am at least secure in the knowledge that my vehicle is not only legally registered, all the pertinent data about it can also be accessed by any LTO branch in the country at the touch of a button.
Thinking back on the snafu’s implications, I realized, to my horror, that if anybody had carjacked my vehicle before its registration was renewed, I would be left with nothing but two worthless pieces of paper (registration and OR) as evidence of my car’s existence before it was stolen. The Highway Patrol Group (HPG) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) would, as a matter of routine, then go to the LTO to check on the authenticity of the original registration, only to find nothing recorded in its computers.
I had almost forgotten about this incident when a source high up in the PNP gave me the lowdown, just the other night, on the sordid mess the LTO’s records-keeping system has deteriorated into. This is, to say the least, appalling. One would expect that with the adoption of automation, the LTO would be running a far more orderly records system. As it turns out, its motor-vehicle records have only gotten more unreliable than ever since that agency entrusted the computerization contract in 1998 to a company called Stradcom.
Stradcom is headed and controlled by a controversial businessman named Cesar T. Quiambao. Remember this name.
No wonder carjacking (or “carnapping,” as coined by the local media) has remained unabated, if it has not actually gotten worse. And no wonder there are thousands of smuggled high-end big bikes (Harley-Davidson, Ducati, Kawasaki, BMW, Yamaha) and luxury cars (Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW) that get legitimized at will or at the drop of a hat. Getting such contraband vehicles registered with the LTO is so easy, according to my source, if you can pay the Stradcom encoders and the LTO people the amounts they demand on the sly.
Stradcom Corp. is the same company that had tried, but was foiled (by the Supreme Court), to prolong its 12-year sway in the LTO by offering to undertake a Radio Frequency Identification Project for the agency. The man behind Stradcom, I repeat, is Cesar T. Quiambao.
(Actually, Quiambao is known as the former president and founder of the Strategic Alliance Development Corp. [Stradec], the holding company of Stradcom, which now runs the LTO’s computers. Stradec’s ownership structure was once described by a morning daily as “murky.” In fact, Quiambao figured in a legal dispute with his partners over control of the company. That dispute ended with Quiambao’s ouster as chairman [by the Sumbilla-Yujuico-controlled board]. But Quiambao, in the end, emerged as the one in control, and the president of Stradcom, although he actually owns only less than 20 percent of that company.)
Quiambao, through Stradcom, managed to retain its stranglehold on LTO’s computerization program for the past 12 years “by hook or by crook, but mostly by hook,” my source said. “But it is mostly by hook, or by getting into the good graces of decision-makers at the highest levels of power, including whoever the incumbent LTO chief might be.”
He remained so “untouchable” in the LTO that he managed to extend what would have been a 10-year computerization contract (that should have expired in 2008); now a rewritten version of the contract specifies that it “officially” expired only in February 2010. Yet it continues to run the LTO’s computers to this day, probably in an interim but legally disputable capacity. Only the incumbent LTO chief, retired PNP director general Arturo Lomibao, can say for sure, of course.
(Businessman Filemon Cuevas, a stalwart of the Iglesia ni Cristo, recounted to a fellow businessman very recently that Quiambao was once a partner in the multibillion-peso Skyways project in which he was involved. Quiambao allegedly issued to him a P300-million check that bounced and remains unhonored to this day. Cuevas said that when he checked what pieces of property were listed under Quiambao’s name, he could find nothing nearly worth P300 million.)
The PNP official, who has decided to come clean about the goings-on at the LTO, recounted how, three years ago, HPG operatives discovered that many vehicle owners were blissfully unaware that duplicate plates have been produced by the hundreds to enable the LTO to “accommodate” the registration of stolen and smuggled vehicles.
“A vehicle’s registration works like a birth certificate; there can only be one possible owner,” the PNP official said. The Stradcom’s “polluted” computer system, however, has been the means to facilitate double registrations, he said. He said this was determined by the HPG in a series of random checks that should have continued—but were suddenly ordered to stop.
He explained that car-engine numbers are usually in four digits of, say, 1234, which the LTO usually determines through stenciling. Once entered into the Stradcom computer, any identical number would be automatically rejected by the computer, and the LTO would refuse to register such a vehicle. Stradcom encoders—for a fat fee, of course—solved this by merely adding the letter “A” to any engine number and voila (!), the vehicle, even if it was stolen or smuggled, is ready for registration. The Stradcom computer merely tweaked the alpha-numeric coding system a bit with an “A” or a “B” and the total corruption of the registration system became the name of the game at the LTO.
Stradcom encoders, it should be pointed out, play a key role in this corrupted operation. They are the keepers of the passwords that would permit access to the registration software.
Our source recounted that in one apprehension, the owner of a snazzy, two-door Mercedes Benz could not satisfactorily explain the origin of his vehicle. In tracing the origin of the engine number, it was discovered that the original registration was for a cement mixer!
There are some 8 million motor vehicles of all types in the country today. How many of these “legally registered” vehicles were stolen or smuggled? Only the Stradcom encoders would be able to tell you, it seems. But the question that would surely scare any legitimate vehicle owner is this: Does your vehicle have a “twin” registrant somewhere? The answer, of course, is you’ll never know because we don’t know to what extent Stradcom’s computer system has been polluted after all these years.