Interpol seizes $50 million, arrests 2000 social engineers

An international law enforcement operation, codenamed ‘First Light 2022,’ has seized 50 million dollars and arrested thousands of people involved in social engineering scams worldwide.

The operation was led by Interpol with the assistance of police in 76 countries and focused on social engineering crimes involving telephone deception, romance scams, business email compromise (BEC) scams, and related money laundering.

Social engineering is a generic term describing the manipulation of victims by threat actors, typically through human interaction, to trick them into performing some act or disclosing sensitive information.

Typically, the threat actors develop a convincing, realistic hook and then contact that person via phone or email to manipulate them.

Social engineering actors usually present an excuse to request a payment, but they may also use the stolen information to sell it to other crooks, gain access to networks/systems, perform blackmail, and more.

The FTC says that people in the US have lost $547 million to romance scams in 2021 and the FBI reports that BEC scams have led to almost $2.4 billion in reported losses.

Operation First Light 2022

Interpol’s First Light 2022 operation targeted romance scams, email deception, scamming frauds, and telephone deception, all closely linked to financial crimes.

The results of the operation, which lasted two months, between March and May 2022, are the following:

  • 1,770 locations raided worldwide
  • Some 3,000 suspects identified
  • Some 2,000 operators, fraudsters, and money launderers arrested
  • Some 4,000 bank accounts frozen
  • Some USD 50 million worth of illicit funds intercepted

Highlighted cases presented by Interpol include a Chinese national who had defrauded 24,000 victims out of $35,700,000 and a fake kidnap case that demanded a payment of $1,575,000 from the victim’s parents.

Hong Kong police arresting a scammer following a raid in telephone center
Hong Kong police arresting a scammer following a raid in telephone center (Interpol)

Another point that Interpol highlights are Ponzi-like job scams posing as e-commerce affiliations and e-shop business opportunities that appear to be on the rise.

“As part of Operation First Light 2022, the Singapore Police Force arrested eight suspects linked to Ponzi-like job scams. Scammers would offer high-paying online marketing jobs via social media and messaging systems where victims would initially make small earnings, and subsequently, be required to recruit more members to earn commissions.” – Interpol.

Portuguese police showcasing confiscated items as part of the operation
Portuguese police showcasing confiscated items as part of the ‘Fast Light’ operation (Interpol)

One more 2022 trend identified by Interpol’s analysts is the impersonation of the agency’s officials, threatening random people to pay the fake agents money to stop an investigation against them.

While there is massive financial loss related to these scams, there are also life-threatening consequences to social engineering crimes.

Interpol says there is a notable rise in human trafficking on social media platforms, where people are lured with lucrative job offers that lead to forced labor, sexual slavery, or captivity in casinos or fishing vessels.

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