Interpol busts 3,500 alleged cybercriminals and scammers, seizes $300 million of ill-gotten proceeds, and warns about the rise of the NFT ‘rug pull’

The International Criminal Police Organisation better-known as Interpol has announced the arrest of 3,500 alleged cybercriminals and scammers, alongside the seizure of $300 million in cash and digital assets across 34 nations. The arrests marked the conclusion of what Interpol calls Operation HAECHI IV, a six-month investigation funded by South Korea.

The operation tackled seven particular types of cyberscam that Interpol lists as: “voice phishing, romance scams, online sextortion, investment fraud, money laundering associated with illegal online gambling, business email compromise fraud, and e-commerce fraud.” It says that 82,112 suspicious bank accounts were blocked, and it seized $199 million in hard currency and $101 million in virtual assets. Interpol says the majority of cases (75%) involved investment fraud, business email compromise and e-commerce fraud.

“The seizure of USD 300 million represents a staggering sum and clearly illustrates the incentive behind today’s explosive growth of transnational organized crime,” said Stephen Kavanagh of Interpol. “This represents the savings and hard-earned cash of victims. This vast accumulation of unlawful wealth is a serious threat to global security and weakens the economic stability of nations worldwide.”

Kavanagh also gives a shout-out to agents in Philippines and Korea, whose co-operation led to the arrest in Manila of a particularly high profile online criminal sought under a Korean Red Notice, and the dismantling of the illegal gambling network he led.

“Despite criminals’ endeavors to gain illicit advantages through contemporary trends, they will eventually be apprehended and face due punishment,” said the head of Interpol’s Korea bureau Kim Dong Kwon. “To accomplish this, Project HAECHI will consistently evolve and expand its scope.”

Interpol has issued two Purple Notices based on the investigation, which warn countries about the kind of fraud practices it discovered. One of these is a new scam in Korea involving the sale of NFTs “with promises of huge returns, which turned out to be a ‘rug pull’, a growing scam in the crypto industry where developers abruptly abandon a project and investors lose their money.”

This was accompanied by a picture of cat-themed picture art, presumably the NFTs involved in the rug pull.

The second is about the use of AI and deep fake technology to “lend credibility to scams by enabling criminals to hide their identities and to pretend to be family members, friends or love interests.” This practice was discovered many times in the UK during the operation, where “AI-generated synthetic content” was used to defraud, harass and extort victims “particularly through impersonation scams, online sexual blackmail, and investment fraud.” Other cases involved the impersonation of people known to the victims “through voice cloning technology.”

Which is pretty freaky stuff: I’d like to think I’d be able to recognise my own family members’ voices on the phone, but these things feel like they get more sophisticated by the week. 

Countries from Argentina to Vietnam took part in Operation HAECHI IV, including India, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. And while little else about this story is amusing, it did tickle me that Interpol held a debrief meeting in Singapore to analyse the operation’s results: and all those hard-working agents smiled and posed for the equivalent of an office Christmas photo.

(Image credit: Interpol)

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