Singapore helps seize $5 million in illicit funds linked to Canadian group providing 'uncrackable phones'

The funds belonged to Phantom Secure, an encrypted telecommunications network used by transnational organised criminal syndicates. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Close to US$4 million (S$5.3 million) in illicit funds linked to a group that provided encrypted telecommunication devices and network services used by transnational organised criminal syndicates have been seized in Singapore.

A total of US$3,971,468.40 was seized from four bank accounts here by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) of the Singapore Police Force and US authorities, said the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday (Dec 14).

The funds belonged to Phantom Secure, an encrypted telecommunications network used by transnational organised criminal syndicates.

The amount has been repatriated to the US, according to announcements from the Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California.

The seizure of the funds follows the indictment of Vincent Ramos, the chief executive of Canada-based Phantom Secure, and four of his associates, by a US federal grand jury in March 2018.

The five were accused of operating a criminal enterprise that facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics through the sale and service of encrypted telecommunications devices and services to drug traffickers.

According to court documents, Phantom Secure had advertised that its "uncrackable" phones were impervious to decryption, wiretapping or legal third-party records requests. It also provided a service to guarantee the destruction of evidence contained in the device if it were ever compromised by an informant, or if law enforcement acquired it.

In 2018, Ramos pleaded guilty to leading a criminal enterprise that had facilitated the transnational importation and distribution of narcotics including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to the US through the sale of these encrypted devices.

Ramos was sentenced to 108 months in prison, and the Phantom Secure network has been shut down.

As part of his guilty plea, Ramos agreed to an US$80 million forfeiture money judgment. He also agreed to give up tens of millions of dollars in identified assets in bank accounts worldwide, as well as houses, a Lamborghini, cryptocurrency accounts and gold coins.

The money repatriated from Singapore was among the assets identified by investigators to be forfeited.

The US DOJ said that Ramos' customers used his products to devastating and sometimes deadly effect. For instance, a March 5, 2014 news article reported that investigations of a gangland murder were stymied because the suspects used Phantom Secure devices to coordinate the killing.

Ramos had used this news to market his encryption services to criminals across the world, writing: "This is the best verification on what we have been saying all along - proven and effective for now over nine years. It is the highest level of authority confirming our effectiveness. It can't get better than that."

The justice department said that it had worked closely with the CAD in Singapore from 2018, to identify and seize the amount linked to the sale of Phantom Secure devices.

The DOJ commended the efforts of its Singapore counterparts in identifying, freezing, and repatriating proceeds of Ramos' criminal enterprise.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation said taking down transnational criminal organisations like Phantom Secure and recouping their illegal financial gains were only possible through its close working relationships with global law enforcement partners.

"The repatriation of close to US$4 million by our Singapore-based partners ensures that Vincent Ramos and the leaders of Phantom Secure will pay for their crimes," said Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner of the US FBI.

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