Online crimes: S'pore police play key role in Interpol probe

Singapore police played a crucial role that led to 585 arrests and US$83 million (S$110 million) intercepted in an Asia-Pacific probe coordinated by Interpol that sought to crack down on online financial crime.

Voice phishing, romance scams and money laundering linked to online gambling were the "top three types of online financial crimes in terms of the number of cases", the world policing body told The Straits Times yesterday.

In voice phishing ruses, callers often impersonate authority figures to scam victims into providing details that would see them lose their money.

Ms Ilana de Wild, Interpol's director of Organised and Emerging Crime, said: "As the investigations continue, we won't disclose the actual figure of dollar value to each crime type but, as the results of Operation Haechi-I attest, the amounts are considerable.

"Our observations showed that investment fraud and money laundering associated with illegal online gambling have contributed to the highest percentage of the value of money intercepted and recovered during the operation."

She said Singapore - one of nine Asian countries that participated in Operation Haechi-I - "played a crucial role in the operation".

Ms de Wild cited a voice phishing case in which two victims in Singapore received calls from somebody claiming to represent the "Singapore High Court". They were falsely accused of money laundering and were referred to a supposed "police officer from Interpol". After the pair provided their Internet banking credentials on fake Singapore Police Force (SPF) websites, their savings were withdrawn by the scammers.

Investigations by the Singapore police "revealed that the fake SPF websites were hosted in South Korea", she added. "A request was made to Korean National Police Agency, which took down the fake SPF websites swiftly and shared valuable intelligence" for the Singapore police to probe further.

The six-month operation, which began last September, was initially focused on the Asia-Pacific region but the borderless nature of online crimes meant that investigations soon spread to include law enforcement on every continent, said Interpol.

Haechi-I is the first operation in a three-year project to tackle cyber-enabled financial crime.

The operation looked at investment fraud, money laundering tied to illegal online gambling, love scams, online sextortion and voice phishing.

To date, more than 1,600 bank accounts worldwide have been frozen as a result of the operation.

Interpol said close cooperation of nine Asian countries, as well as the mobilisation of 40 specialised law enforcement officers across the Asia-Pacific, made the arrests and financial seizures possible.

But it noted that since the Covid-19 outbreak last year, there has been a significant increase in cyber financial crimes, particularly online fraud schemes relating to personal protective equipment, vaccines, self-testing kits and other health products.

Said Ms de Wild: "Also, in certain countries, individual actors and criminal groups fraudulently applied for and misused financial aid provided by government financial stimulus programmes, often rapidly moving the funds away abroad via money-laundering techniques.

"In parallel, criminal syndicates have also enhanced their globalised banking network, enabling them to reach more victims in different countries and then rapidly launder the criminal proceeds."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2021, with the headline Online crimes: S'pore police play key role in Interpol probe. Subscribe