Europol’s Head of the European Serious Organised Crime Centre, Jari Liukku has spoken about the little-known tricks of social engineering fraudsters: “Social engineering-based fraud remains one of the most significant transnational crime threats to European Union citizens, as well as to private and public sector organisations. Billions in criminal profit are made every year by international organised crime groups in what is considered to be the second biggest source of criminal proceeds after drug trafficking. Internationally coordinated investigations, like operation Valcea-Cruces, are a clear indicator of what can be achieved when European Union law enforcement agencies work together with the support of Europol and Eurojust. Nevertheless, despite the various efforts made, the threat of social engineering fraud remains high.”
Operation Valcea-Cruces began in early 2017 when law enforcement authorities exchanged information on different fraud cases. The busted crime ring, operating in different cells across Europe, was led from Romania where five individuals were arrested alongside 14 in Spain, resulting in 33 arrests in total during the course of the investigations. The criminal group was dismantled by the Spanish National Police, Mossos d’Esquadra and the Romanian Police with active support and coordination from Europol and Eurojust.
The organised crime group operated in two ways:
- Posing as suppliers for public sector organisations and claiming organisations had payments outstanding. Once contact had been established, the organisations were told to transfer money to a new bank account – in reality opened by a money mule
- Committing online fraud against private bodies either by phishing or copying pictures from websites and republishing them, pretending to be official rental websites
Counterfeiting centre dismantled
The organisation made more than €8 million and opened almost 700 bank accounts in Spain to transfer the money made from their illegal activities. This money was later withdrawn or transferred to international bank accounts. As a result of the investigations, five house searches were carried out in Spain and two in Romania. During the house search of the Spanish ring leader in Valencia, authorities dismantled a counterfeiting document centre.
Europol supported this investigation by providing ongoing analytical and operational support and deploying a mobile office to assist the Spanish authorities with on-the-spot real time intelligence analysis which helped identify several transnational links.