A year-long investigative clampdown on criminal networks coordinated by the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) has demonstrated the scale of phone and online frauds worldwide, the organisation said in a statement on Wednesday.
INTERPOL said 35 countries participated in the operation dubbed "First Light" and this led to 21,549 arrests in more than 10,000 raids, as well as the seizure of almost $154 million of "illicit funds".
Most of the crimes laid at suspects' feet included a "social engineering" element, where victims are manipulated into giving up personal information like passwords or bank details.
The international organisation said it found instances of "business email compromise, romance scams and 'smishing'," where SMS text messages are used to try and convince targets to hand over valuable details in a variant of more typical email "phishing" attacks.
The statement read, "A year-long investigative clampdown on criminal networks coordinated by INTERPOL has demonstrated the scale of phone and online frauds worldwide. Codenamed First Light, the operation officially concluded in November with the following results: 10,380 locations raided, 21,549 operators, fraudsters and money launderers arrested, 310 bank accounts frozen, USD 153 973 709 worth of illicit funds intercepted.
"This latest edition of Operation First Light marked the first time law enforcement has coordinated with INTERPOL on a global scale to combat telecoms fraud, with operations taking place on every continent. A three-month enforcement phase (1 September – 30 November 2019) saw 35 countries participate in a coordinated crackdown on organised crime groups engaged in various types of telecommunications and social engineering scams.
"This was followed by a year of intensive information sharing among participating countries, analysing the intelligence acquired in operation to identify suspects and pursue investigative leads. Based on the criminal techniques uncovered, INTERPOL also issued three Purple Notices on telephone scams, investment fraud and fraud schemes taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Other types of fraud exposed in operation include business email compromise, romance scams and 'smishing', where standard messaging service (SMS) messages are sent to coerce a victim to divulge personal information that can subsequently be fraudulently used. In Singapore, police arrested a man who presented false INTERPOL credentials when accompanying an elderly woman into a bank for a withdrawal. A further investigation found that the man appeared to be himself the victim of fraudsters who had called him pretending to be Chinese law enforcement agents, provided him with the fraudulent identification and directed him to seize the elderly woman's funds.
"The results underscored the transnational nature of many telephone and online scams, where perpetrators often operate from a different country or even continent than their victims. Leveraging the borderless nature of the Internet, fraudsters rarely respect national jurisdictions in their scams. The money extracted from victims is also likely to involve multiple countries as criminals use overseas bank accounts or money mules to launder their funds."