THE HAGUE (AFP) - Police have arrested 118 people in an unprecedented globally-coordinated swoop on plane ticket credit card fraud, a billion-dollar organised crime industry, officials said Friday.
Operation Global Airport Action at 80 airports in 45 countries was coordinated from Europol's headquarters in The Hague, Interpol in Singapore and Latin American agency Ameripol in Bogota.
Police teams at airports from London to Manila arrested suspects who had used fraudulent credit card details to buy plane tickets as they queued to board or as they landed at their destination, said Europol chief Rob Wainwright.
"It's a billion-dollar a year problem for the airline industry... and the volume of traffic is huge," Wainwright told AFP during the two-day operation on Wednesday and Thursday. "In addition, millions of innocent citizens are affected through the misuse of their credit card data," he added. "We had to design a global operation to put us into any kind of position to stop the guys from boarding the flights or indeed to apprehend them on arrival."
Inside Europol's fortress-like headquarters, experts from credit card companies, including Visa and American Express, as well as airline representatives and police analysts worked closely together. Europol gave AFP rare access to their European Cybercrime Centre EC3 during the operation.
"We never realised how big the problem with fraud in the airlines was until we approached the airlines and asked for their cooperation," Marcin Skowronek, one of the crime centre's investigators, told AFP. Behind him, a giant screen tracks flights across Europe, some of them carrying suspect passengers heading for arrest after Europol passes on their details to national police.
"We have a team of around 20 officers standing by at (London) Heathrow as we speak," said Skowronek. Another screen shows arrest updates. "Miami (to) London Heathrow, American Airlines, 1 PAX (passenger) arrested, 11,000 euros fraud," reads one message.
Europol said in total more than 281 suspicious transactions were reported over the two days. Following their arrest, fraudsters' real identities are checked against Europol's own crime databases.
"We've had lots of hits today," said a Europol analyst who asked not to be named for security reasons, adding that many of those arrested are also wanted for other crimes. "In many cases, the credit card fraud is linked to other serious crimes like drug smuggling, illegal immigration and human trafficking for sex exploitation."
Europol director Wainwright said the operation, unprecedented in scale, took four months to put together and so could not be mounted continuously. "This is a fantastic example of the police working with private industry to protect the consumer," he said. "It shows the value of this kind of operation led by international police organisations... that really can crack down on all aspects of modern organised crime."