Interpol, Hawks and US Secret Service swoop on cyber-criminals

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A gang suspected of swindling a US-based company of Euro 455,000 (about R7,2 million) was taken down in raids across Johannesburg led by investigators from the Hawks Serious Commercial Crimes Unit and US Secret Service agents with support from Interpol.

With investigations ongoing, the operation led to the arrest of seven people allegedly linked to a Nigerian organised crime syndicate specialising in online fraud. The suspects allegedly bought luxury vehicles with the proceeds of their crimes.

The operation was part of a global initiative under the framework of Interpol’s Global Financial Crime Task Force (IGFCTF), where 14 countries including South Africa and the United States (US) work on tackling the global threat of cyber-enabled financial crime.

The suspects – four men and three women aged between 25 and 42 – are believed to be key figures in a global crime syndicate involved in fraud and money laundering.

The gang is also believed to be behind romance scams, using fake online identities to lure vulnerable men and women to transfer money. Romance scams generate millions of US dollars worldwide.

Commending the collaborative work of the multi-disciplinary team which led to the arrests, Hawks head Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya said: “Organised criminal groups should know law enforcement agencies collaborate on an international level to dismantle criminal networks.”

The Johannesburg operation is one of several global operations under the IGFCTF framework with law enforcement authorities working to crack down on West African fraud syndicates targeting individuals and businesses worldwide.

The authorities involved are now working closely with Interpol to track the movements of gang money worldwide. Investigations are focused on a worldwide criminal syndicate known as Black Axe, which allegedly used business email compromise (BEC) scams to defraud a US-based mental health institute.

BEC scams usually target third party vendors to access business email accounts after which payments are diverted to money mules’ bank accounts.

Michael K. Burgin of the US Secret Service said: “The fight against cyber-enabled crime knows no boundaries. The collaborative efforts in this case show how vital it is to work collectively with international partners to execute takedowns of highly organised transnational criminal syndicates.”

Eight suspected Black Axe leaders were arrested in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2021, leading to a large drop in the group’s activities and similar crimes according to Interpol. They face extradition to the US to face charges of theft in connection with stealing more than Euro 6,25 million (about R100 million) from romance scam victims.

“Taking advantage of globalisation and digitisation, criminals can commit financial crimes with increasing efficiency and sophistication,” Rory Corcoran, Acting Director, INTERPOL Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre (IFCACC), said.

“The Johannesburg arrests highlight the importance of international co-operation between Interpol and its global law enforcement partners to target and disrupt criminal syndicates involved in all forms of financial crimes and corruption.”

Since its creation in January, the Centre has helped Interpol member countries intercept over Euro 4,5 million (about R85 million) linked to BEC and romance frauds.