A large-scale Interpol operation has resulted in arrested and ill-gotten gains seizures galore. Operation First Light took place between March and May of this year. It involved 76 countries taking social engineers and telecommunications fraudsters to task, with multiple wins for those involved.

Taking the fight to the scammers

The operations focused on several popular scams in play from criminals the world over, including telephone scams, romance, email deception (Business Email Compromise, which targets business), and related aspects of financial crime.

All around the world, law enforcement collected huge hauls of ill-gotten gains and electronic devices. Cash and forged official documents were seized in Hong Kong. Multiple national call centres suspected of telecommunications fraud were also raided. The haul in Portugal included dozens of laptops, mobile devices of all varieties, and stacks of counterfeit official documents. These results are just the tip of the iceberg.

When an operation gets results

First Light occurs annually and has been in operation since 2014. This year, it was funded by China’s Ministry of Public Security. Originally the project focused on Southeast Asia, and this is the second time the operation has gone global. Here’s some of the preliminary findings by Interpol, with numbers subject to change as more details are confirmed:

  • 1,770 locations raided worldwide
  • Some 3,000 suspects identified
  • Around 2,000 operators, fraudsters and money launderers arrested
  • Roughly 4,000 bank accounts frozen
  • Some USD 50 million worth of illicit funds intercepted

At this stage, there are only a few examples of arrests and backgrounds to specific crimes available. Some notable examples have been given, however:

Based on intelligence exchanged in the framework of the operation, the Singapore Police Force rescued a teenage scam victim who had been tricked into pretending to be kidnapped, sending videos of himself with fake wounds to his parents and seeking a EUR 1.5 million ransom.

A Chinese national wanted in connection with a Ponzi scheme estimated to have defrauded nearly 24,000 victims out of EUR 34 million was arrested in Papua New Guinea and returned to China via Singapore.

Interpol also mentions 8 suspects arrested in Singapore for “Ponzi-like” job scams. In the example given, victims were lured with the promise of high-paying online marketing jobs. Small initial earnings led to situations where they had to recruit more members to earn commissions.

Trends and concerns

Some of the most pressing observations from the forces working this operation are as follows:

  • the way money mule herders are laundering money through the personal bank accounts of victims;
  • how social media platforms are driving human trafficking, entrapping people into forced labour, sexual slavery, or captivity in casinos or on fishing vessels;
  • an increase in vishing fraud with criminals pretending to be bank officials to trick victims into sharing online log-in details;
  • a growth in cybercriminals posing as INTERPOL officials to obtain money from victims believing themselves to be under investigation.

Impersonation of law enforcement and other official entities is a mainstay of email fraud and extortion scams. It’s also popular where scams involving visas are concerned. There can’t be many people who have yet to experience a fake banking SMS at this point. Social media has also been a problem where trafficking and forced labour are concerned for some time now.

Money muling and bogus jobs are big business, and makes regular appearances on Malwarebytes Labs. Much of this ties into fake job opportunities. It can also occur as the result of email and social media outreach. If you’re really unlucky, you could be sucked into bogus NFT art projects which eventually offer up some malware. You may even be caught out by fake postings on legitimate job hunting portals.

For scammers, the sky’s the limit. It is, however, nice to see globally coordinated law enforcement operations making some sort of dent in proceedings. It’s up to us to pay attention to upcoming criminal trends, and do what we can to avoid falling for them.