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Some 2,000 cyber crime operatives, fraudsters and money launderers have been arrested, with 4,000 bank accounts frozen and $50m (£41.5m) of illicit funds seized in a two-month, worldwide operation against cyber fraud, coordinated by Interpol.
Operation First Light, which began in March 2022, saw law enforcement bodies in 76 different countries collaborate with the international agency, conducting more than 1,700 raids and identifying more than 3,000 suspects, in many cases triggering new investigative leads that will pay off in the future.
The operation’s targets included telephone scammers, long-distance romance scammers, email fraudsters and other connected financial criminals, identified through a prior intelligence operation using Interpol’s secure global comms network, sharing data on suspects, suspicious bank accounts, unlawful transactions, and communications means such as phone numbers, email addresses, fake websites and IP addresses.
“Telecom and BEC [business email compromise] fraud are sources of serious concern for many countries and have a hugely damaging effect on economies, businesses and communities,” said Rory Corcoran, director of Interpol’s Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre (IFCACC).
“The international nature of these crimes can only be addressed successfully by law enforcement working together beyond borders, which is why Interpol is critical to providing police the world over with a coordinated tactical response.”
Duan Daqi, head of the Interpol National Central Bureau in Beijing, added: “The transnational and digital nature of different types of telecom and social engineering fraud continues to present grave challenges for local police authorities, because perpetrators operate from a different country or even continent than their victims and keep updating their fraud schemes.
“Interpol provides a unique platform for police cooperation to address this challenge,” he said. “Though Operation First Light 2022 is concluded, our collective law enforcement efforts will continue as the crimes persist.”
This is the ninth consecutive year that Interpol has conducted Operation First Light, although up until 2021 it was focused on Southeast Asia – this is the second year that it has been run globally.
Among some of this year’s successes were the arrest of a Chinese national in Papua New Guinea wanted in connection with a Ponzi scheme that had defrauded 24,000 victims out of more than €30m (£26m) – they have now been extradited to China.
In Singapore, a further eight suspects linked to Ponzi-like job scams were arrested after offering high-paying online marketing jobs via social media and messaging systems, where victims would at first make small amounts of money before being required to recruit more members to earn commissions.
Interpol said that with the internet having created so many online career prospects, those who turned to e-commerce affiliates and other business opportunities were increasingly in danger of becoming victims of fraud.
Meanwhile, also in Singapore, intelligence gathered during the course of the operation enabled police to rescue a teenage boy who had been conned into pretending to be kidnapped. The boy was made to send videos of himself with fake wounds to his parents, and the scammers demanded a €1.5m ransom.
Interpol also used the operation to gather more intelligence on how fraudsters currently operate, to be shared around its member countries. Some of the emerging trends identified include money mules increasingly laundering money through their victims’ personal bank accounts; the use of social media platforms to drive human trafficking, trapping people into forced labour or sexual slavery; and an increase in vishing fraud where criminals pretend to be bank officials.
The agency also found evidence that cyber criminals are impersonating Interpol itself, posing as law enforcement officials to obtain money from victims who have been conned into believing they are the target of an Interpol investigation.
Commenting on the operation, Outseer chief identity officer Armen Najarian said: “The fact that 76 countries were involved in this investigation shows how widespread fraud is across the globe – it’s endemic – so it’s great to see Interpol taking action.
“However, while this investigation is definitely a step in the right direction from Interpol that is likely to have fraudsters worried, it won’t push the needle long term, as even the thousands of arrests and bank account freezes are just a drop in the ocean. Today, it’s telecommunications fraud and romance scams, but fraudsters are cunning and constantly on the lookout for tomorrow’s opportunities.
“We’re seeing huge amounts of scams targeting new areas, such as buy now, pay later schemes, threat actors using the war in Ukraine as an ‘in’ and brand impersonation scams which make up 39% of all fraud globally.”
Najarian said the onus had to be on banks to play a more proactive role rather than relying on Interpol members to make reactive arrests, and put in place systems and technology – such as machine learning – to make sure fraudulent payments are not just detected, but stopped in real time.