Hundreds arrested and millions seized in global INTERPOL operation against social engineering scams

15 June 2022
International police cooperation targets telecommunication fraud, business mail compromise (BEC) and associated money laundering

LYON, France -- A worldwide crackdown on social engineering fraud has seen scammers identified globally, substantial criminal assets seized and new investigative leads triggered in every continent.

The two-month (8 March – 8 May 2022) Operation, codenamed First Light 2022, saw 76 countries take part in an international clampdown on the organized crime groups behind telecommunications and social engineering scams.

Police in participating countries raided national call centres suspected of telecommunications or scamming fraud, particularly telephone deception, romance scams, e-mail deception, and connected financial crime.

Illegal assets in the form of cash seized by Police in Hong Kong, China during Operation First Light 2022
Digital evidence seized by the Polícia Judiciária during Operation First Light 2022 which will now be forensically explored to determine criminal modus operandi.
Digital devices, mobile phones and forged official documents seized by Police in Hong Kong, China during Operation First Light 2022
Digital evidence and counterfeit official documents seized by the Polícia Judiciária, the national criminal investigation police agency of Portugal, during Operation First Light 2022.
Police in Hong Kong, China, raided multiple national call centres suspected of telecommunications or scamming fraud, resulting in arrests and seizures.

Although results are still coming in, preliminary figures reached so far include:

  • 1,770 locations raided worldwide
  • Some 3,000 suspects identified
  • Some 2,000 operators, fraudsters and money launderers arrested
  • Some 4,000 bank accounts frozen
  • Some USD 50 million worth of illicit funds intercepted
Social engineering fraud refers to scams which manipulate or trick people into giving out confidential or personal information which can then be used for criminal financial gain.

Tangible results

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.

Get-rich-quick schemes

With the Internet creating new online career prospects, companies and professionals who turn to e-commerce affiliate and EBShopp business opportunities are increasingly being scammed.

As part of Operation First Light 2022, the Singapore Police Force arrested eight suspects linked to Ponzi-like job scams.  Scammers would offer high-paying online marketing jobs via social media and messaging systems where victims would initially make small earnings, and subsequently be required to recruit more members to earn commissions.

Making the case: INTERPOL police capabilities

Emerging trends uncovered during operations were shared with member countries in the form of INTERPOL purple notices detailing:

  • 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.
“Telecom and BEC fraud are sources of serious concern for many countries and have a hugely damaging effect on economies, businesses and communities.” 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,” added Mr Corcoran.

“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,” said Duan Daqi, Head of the INTERPOL National Central Bureau in Beijing.
“INTERPOL provides a unique platform for police cooperation to address this challenge. Though Operation Firstlight 2022 is concluded, our collective law enforcement efforts will continue as the crimes persist,” added Mr Duan.

To identify the criminal assets that would require interception during tactical operations, countries shared intelligence via INTERPOL’s secure global police communications network I-24/7 ahead of time, feeding INTERPOL’s Financial Crimes Analysis File with data on suspects, suspicious bank accounts, unlawful transactions and communications means such as telephone numbers, email addresses, fraudulent websites and IP addresses.

An annual operation launched in 2014, First Light 2022 was carried out with the financial support of China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Whilst initial First Light operations took place across Southeast Asia, this 2022 edition marks the second time law enforcement has coordinated First Light on a global scale, with tactical operations taking place on every continent.