Fraud networks are recruiting “plants” to work in phone shops, call centres and financial institutions to steal personal data, gardaí believe.
One network is “similar” in its operation to the notorious Black Axe organised crime group in Nigeria, which has been implicated in online scams worldwide.
Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan, who leads the Garda’s National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB), said the gangs are placing “recruits” in jobs where they have access to phone numbers and bank accounts.
The data is then used by criminals to scam people out of funds or to make bogus claims.
“We have seen from our investigations that gangs will try to target people working in industries where they have access to personal data,” he said.
“They will try to target people working maybe in the telephone industry, the call centre industry or the finance industry.
“We strongly believe some of these crime gangs organise for people to get jobs in some of these industries.
“We have no doubt their sole function in going in to get a job in some of these industries is for the purpose of gathering information.”
He added: “Over the last 12 months we have arrested people who have worked in the financial industry.
“We have arrested people in the banking industry who we believe were involved in criminality.”
The practice is happening “right across the commercial world” in any sector which involves people handing over their personal data, said Chief Supt Lordan.
His warning coincides with an alert issued by the Attorney General’s office yesterday that it is being targeted in a telephone scam.
Callers claiming to be from the AG’s office try to trick people into disclosing personal details, such as PPS numbers or bank details.
The Garda investigation into invoice redirect frauds, email frauds and other online scams has escalated in recent months. Two major policing operations, Operation Skein and Operation BoxPlot, have led to arrests across the country.
In the latest spate, two teenagers were arrested in Longford last week as part of a probe into the laundering of over €10m of invoice redirect fraud funds through Irish bank accounts.
In a separate operation, four men were arrested in connection with laundering €300,000. In both cases, those arrested were released without charge.
The Garda clampdown is focusing on “recruiters” or “mule herders” who persuade low-paid workers or students, who are sometimes paid hundreds of euro, to allow stolen money to be laundered through their bank accounts.
The gang leaders communicate with the so-called money mules via WhatsApp or Instagram.
Gardaí warned last month that 700 suspected money mules have been identified by them in the past year and their average age is 19.
Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan, who is heading Operation Skein, said money mules risked criminal records and a potential prison sentence of 14 years.
Invoice fraud is believed to have cost businesses around €10.5m in 2020.
Victims duped into transferring money to criminal bank accounts include large companies, small businesses, house-buyers tricked out of their downpayments and employees swindled out of their wages.
The frauds — which are known as “business email compromise” — are perpetrated by criminals using malware to infiltrate company and private emails, often from overseas.
A total of 287 frauds to the value of €9.1m were reported to the GNECB from January to November in 2020. Around €5.7m was stolen in Dublin, with another €3.4m in 168 frauds reported around the country.
The victims are increasingly individuals and small businesses rather than large companies, according to Chief Supt Lordan.
In the past four months, the bureau investigated one case in which a victim was tricked out of €25,000. He thought he was lodging the funds to his solicitor’s account to purchase a site, but the email outlining his solicitor’s bank details was bogus.
In another case, a couple buying a house lost €600,000 they thought they had transferred to a solicitor. Gardaí are still trying to retrieve their money.
Chief Supt Lordan said some fraud groups operating here have a similar modus operandi to those of the Black Axe crime group. “Their MO is the same. In a lot of areas, the way they operate is the same,” he said.
The Black Axe syndicate has been described by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service as a banned organisation in Nigeria, linked to decades of murders, rape, extortion and drug dealing.
In a case that was prosecuted in the UK in 2019, three siblings who worked directly for the gang’s leader were jailed after they had laundered almost £1m through UK bank accounts.