Interpol operation snares 21,500 telecoms fraudsters, including in Singapore

The head of Interpol’s Beijing bureau says there has been an increase in telecoms fraud during the Covid-19 pandemic.
PHOTO: Pexels

More than 21,500 people were arrested and almost US$154 million (S$50.8 million) seized during a year-long investigation led by Interpol to crack down on telecoms fraud and other scams.

Law enforcement agencies in 35 countries, including China, supported the operation, code-named First Light.

“This operation was supported by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and also Interpol’s National Central Bureau in Beijing, which provided very active and significant support,” Jose De Gracia, Interpol’s assistant director of criminal networks, said in an interview.

“They were the key to developing this operation.”

Duan Daqi, head of the Interpol bureau in Beijing, said in a press release that there had been an increase in telecoms and social engineering fraud during the Covid-19 pandemic, but Operation First Light had been successful in curbing crimes like telephone and online scams.

This was the first time such an operation had been conducted on a global scale but similar investigations had been ongoing in Asia since 2013, Interpol said.

During the course of the investigation, law enforcement officers around the world carried out raids in 10,380 locations, and more than 300 bank accounts were frozen, it said.

In one “double victim” case, a Chinese man was arrested in a bank in Singapore while trying to convince an elderly local woman to withdraw her savings and hand them over to him.

The man said he was acting on instructions given to him over the phone by someone masquerading as a Chinese law enforcement official, who appointed him as an “Interpol agent” to help seize funds in Singapore.

He said he believed the fraudsters and thought he really was working for Interpol, according to the press release.

“Impersonation of an officer actually happens a lot of times,” De Gracia said. “But the impersonation of an Interpol officer doesn’t happen too many times. It’s a double victim scheme in which both of them are going to lose, one is money and the other will face trial for impersonating an official.”

China’s public security ministry was helping in the ongoing investigation into the Singapore case, he said.

A handout photo. Meng Hongwei, the former Chinese president of Interpol, was sentenced to 13 and a half years in prison in January. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Beijing’s relationship with Interpol was in the spotlight in 2018, when Meng Hongwei , the former Chinese president of the agency, disappeared on a trip back to his home country.

Chinese authorities later said he was being investigated for corruption, and in January 2020 he was sentenced to 13 and a half years in prison .

De Gracia declined to answer questions about Meng or if his case had affected the relationship between the agency and the Chinese authorities.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.