Interpol blitz nets 1,500 linked to phone and online scams

An Interpol-coordinated operation has led to the arrests of more than 1,500 people over multimillion-euro telephone and e-mail scams targeting Asian countries.

Dubbed Operation First Light 2016, police across the world conducted raids on call centres suspected of being involved in telephone scams, money laundering and illegal online gambling, according to a press statement issued by Interpol.

In the biggest bust of the two-month operation, some 1,300 nationals were detained in the Philippines for fraudulent activities conducted out of a single building that were aimed at victims in China.

And in the latest arrests, more than 200 Chinese nationals were arrested by the Spanish police based on intelligence exchanged in the framework of the operation, resulting in the shutdown of 13 call centres in Madrid, Barcelona and Alicante that had scammed thousands of victims out of some €16 million (S$24 million).

Criminals working at these Spanish call centres would pose as law enforcement or justice officials and tell victims in China that their bank accounts had been targeted by criminals, directing them to transfer a sum of money into a designated bank account in order to track the criminals.

Operation First Light, which took place between Oct 1 and Nov 30, also netted Korean, Thai and Indian criminals. Countries participating in the operation included Austria, China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor Leste and the United States.

A variety of social engineering scams - in which people are manipulated or tricked into giving out confidential or personal information that is then used for financial gain by the criminals - were targeted by Interpol. These included telephone deception, romance scams and e-mail deception.

Interpol's Financial Crimes unit coordinator Makato Tanase said in a press statement: "By sharing information through Interpol, police can overcome the challenges in investigating international telephone fraud, such as criminals frequently changing locations or IP addresses, and build working relationships to prevent similar criminal activity in the future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Interpol blitz nets 1,500 linked to phone and online scams'. Print Edition | Subscribe