Police in Europe have arrested nearly two dozen individuals on suspicion of being part of an international group of online fraudsters.
The alleged cyber-criminals are accused of cheating companies in at least 20 countries out of approximately $1.17m.
Charges were brought against 23 individuals on August 10. The suspects were taken into custody in a series of raids simultaneously carried out at 34 addresses in Ireland, Romania, and the Netherlands.
Europol, which coordinated the action, said the cyber-criminal gang had been running scams for years, updating its tactics to exploit current events.
“The fraud was run by an organized crime group which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic already illegally offered other fictitious products for sale online, such as wooden pellets,” said Europol in a press release.
“Last year the criminals changed their modus operandi and started offering protective materials after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The group accused of running the scams is allegedly made up of individuals hailing from various countries in Africa, who relocated to Europe. There, they created fake web pages and email addresses that allowed them to impersonate legitimate wholesale companies.
Members of the group, posing as employees of these wholesalers, would then defraud other companies by soliciting orders from them and requesting payments in advance of goods’ being shipped.
Victims companies – most of which were located in Europe and Asia – sent the money in good faith; however, the goods they had ordered never arrived.
Europol said that the gang’s criminal proceeds “were laundered through Romanian bank accounts controlled by the criminals before being withdrawn at ATMs.”
An ongoing investigation into the cyber-criminal gang has been supported by Europol since 2017. Assistance offered by the organization included the deployment of two of its cyber-crime experts to the raids that took place in the Netherlands to help secure relevant evidence and support Dutch authorities with cross-checking data against real-time information gathered during the operation.
This latest coordinated action against cybercrime follows an Interpol operation that led to the arrest of an alleged 45-year-old sexual predator and human trafficker on August 6 in Guatemala. The unnamed man is suspected of producing and distributing child sexual abuse material.