Police dismantle gang of online fraudsters and romance scammers

The Italian Financial Police (Guardia di Finanza), supported by Europol, arrested 10 members of a transnational criminal group. The criminals, mainly Nigerian citizens, were involved in laundering the proceeds of online fraud, amounting to over EUR 2.5 million.

Hundreds of individuals and tens of companies in Europe and beyond have become victims of the sophisticated techniques employed by the criminal group via so-called payment diversion fraud and Internet romance scams.

With payment diversion fraud, fraudsters hijack a company’s means of communication and provide company staff in charge of payments with different account details for suppliers or customers. Money is therefore inadvertently transferred to bank accounts controlled by the criminal group members who then send the money abroad and ultimately withdraw it as cash.

With the second type of fraud – romance scams – fraudsters target victims by creating fake profiles on legitimate Internet dating websites. They then gain the interest and trust of their victims and feed them with false information, to convince them to send money.

Law enforcement analysed thousands of financial transactions to reconstruct the money flows and their destinations across several jurisdictions. The criminal group relied on a network of accomplices who operated a sort of coordinated ‘bank run’ within a few hours in order to make withdrawals in cash from the bank accounts chosen as final destinations.

More than 130 police officers were involved in the operation, supported by experts from Europol’s Financial Intelligence Group and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), leading to 10 arrests and 32 searches in different locations.

The deployment of a Europol team in Turin, Italy, assisted Guardia di Finanza officers with real-time intelligence analysis and technical support, which aided the identification of transnational links.

Head of Europol’s Financial Intelligence Group, Igor Angelini, said: “Criminals, too, operate in a completely integrated financial environment in Europe and beyond. Money can travel as fast as digital data across many jurisdictions and eventually become ready-to-use cash in the hands of fraudsters thousands of kilometres away from the money’s criminal origin. Sharing and combining the financial intelligence available in the different Member States is the only way to tackle large-scale money laundering. Europol’s Financial Intelligence Group is here to support European countries with this challenge.”

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