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From Korea to Kerry: Gardaí reveal massive international fraud with a 'significant footprint' in Ireland

Gardaí say that Ireland is a target for international organised fraud gangs.

Image: Shutterstock/wk1003mike

GARDAÍ HAVE UNCOVERED international organised crime gangs using Ireland as a base for multi-million euro frauds.

From Kerry to Korea, from Midleton to Moscow, scammers have set up camp here in a criminal network that reaches to every corner of the globe.

Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan and Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) sat down with The Journal to discuss the reach and scope of what has become a pandemic boom in scams.

The unit is based in Harcourt Square, a stone’s throw from the Irish bases of some of the world’s biggest financial institutions – and it has seen a huge rise in requests for its expertise.

From investment fraud, to scamming the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, to the rise in phishing and smishing scams as well as sophisticated invoice redirect fraud, the garda team is now swamped with work.

“As someone described it to me recently, fraud has changed from a cottage industry to a global organised crime epidemic or pandemic. It is not just Ireland, it is right across the globe, and Ireland is just as much to the fore as any other country,” Chief Supt Lordan said.

Chief Supt Lordan and Supt Cryan are hugely experienced detectives – and they said they have seen fraud move from skilled forgeries to the online world.  

Lordan speaks with an affable authority, Cryan with a considered directness.

Garda 2 Det Supt Michael Cryan and Det Chief Supt Pat Lordan lead the GNECB.

“With technology now there are no borders, no boundaries, money is going from Bandon in Cork and in milliseconds it is in Hong Kong, anywhere in Asia or Europe.

“The cash is gone in a matter of hours from the account it was sent to, it moves that fast. A lot of these crime groups have a substantial footprint here in Ireland. Not just in Dublin but across the country, from Donegal all the way down to Cork and all of those towns in between.

“There will be ‘soldiers’ and cells working in those areas and linked up with other people in Europe and Asia,” Lordan said.

Crime pandemic

For Cryan, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a mirrored pandemic in economic crime and he believes the comfort of working from home is partly to blame.

“It’s not new, fraud is around a long, long time but it has changed dramatically and Covid has changed it dramatically. Everyone working from home, and people became more and more trusting of the computer in front of them.

“They’re in their own houses, they feel safe and they are doing things where they don’t have the same over watch [by managers] they would have in the office,” he explained.

The two senior gardaí said they are constantly in contact with foreign police forces, and are on first-name terms with their counterparts in Russia, Hong Kong, the US and other regions.

Money mules

Lordan said that the financial scams move not just out of Ireland but that accounts, owned by so-called money mules, are here.

A money mule is a person, based here in Ireland, who allows their account to be used by a criminal gang to move money across international borders.

The GNECB now believes, and arrests have proven this, that financial fraudsters, particularly an organised crime group with origins in West Africa, are operating in Ireland. 

Cryan said that the detectives have made arrests of lower-tier money mule account holders and have also found senior members of the gang operating in Ireland. 

“It is at the highest level of scams. At the bottom of the ladder you have the money mule, a boy or girl letting money be laundered through their account.

“Then there’s the mule herder, who we have found in Ireland – they are the next level up, acting as handlers for the mules. There is a next level up then, managing operations across the region.

“From examining phones we’ve seized we found messages from West Africa sent to people in various countries. They send out a message to the herder looking for an account, for example, that can manage two or three thousand euro.

“The herder here then sends out a message and gets the mule to take the money,” Cryan said. 

On some occasions the gang have been stymied in their activities due to withdrawal limits on accounts in Ireland. The guards have been able to freeze the money transfer before it left Ireland.

Garda 3 Det Chief Supt Lordan said gardaí are utilising the Egmont Group to get help from other police forces.

Recovery

Lordan said that they estimate they have recovered €25 million to date for the victims of fraud. 

The figures are dramatic: on one occasion they were able to recover $490,000 (€410,000) of $500,000 loot stolen from an American company based in Ireland with the help of the FBI. 

In that incident, the gang had taken over the company’s email account and waited until they saw a large amount coming in to launch their attack using fake emails. 

Another time the team received a call from South Korea and was able to recover thousands of euro hidden in a County Kerry-based bank account. 

Cryan recalled the statement from law enforcement titan and former FBI chief James Comey who said that there are two types of companies: those who have been scammed and those who don’t know yet. 

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Lordan said that the gardaí have successfully made connections with local police forces across the globe via the Egmont Group. The body was formed in Egmont, Canada and has 166 financial intelligence agencies, including GNECB, on its contact books worldwide.

Similarly the FIU.net is another resource associated with Europol which allows gardaí to interact with other police financial intelligence units.  

“We’ve got €1.3m back there from a company about 500 metres from us here in Dublin city centre not too long ago and that was through international cooperation.

“All of our activities need serious worldwide cooperation. That is where we are succeeding with it, you have to have contacts on the ground.

“We had a meeting last week with the US and we have meetings with other countries regularly who would be regular receivers of money through frauds. They are doing nothing wrong but they are the ‘Ireland’ at that time of that fraud.

We have had success stories in getting money back from Hong Kong, Singapore, Russia; but it works both ways. We’ve helped get money back in Kerry from South Korea last year in the middle of the Covid lockdown. Some poor victim in South Korea was scammed and the money went to Kerry.

“It is all our own doing, nothing to do with Schengen. We go through the FIU.net in Europe or Egmont.

“We’ve had cases where money was scammed in Cork and the money went to Belgium. We would call Belgium immediately and I know we will get 100% response from Belgium. They will do what they can to recover that money immediately,” Lordan said. 

shutterstock_1061608055 One of the polices with a close relationship with Ireland is the Belgian Politie. Source: Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis

Operation Skein

Cryan revealed that the anti-fraud investigation Operation Skein is an enormous investigation, spanning across almost every border in the world with a significant footprint in Ireland. It is investigating invoice redirection fraud (where invoices are redirected and money laundered through bank accounts in Ireland), and has made 15 arrests to date.

Cryan said many of those involved in scams, and particularly those at the highest level here and abroad, are highly qualified and third level-educated people who have opted for crime as they are from countries with high unemployment. 

“These people, operating in Ireland are highly educated to a very good university level. But there’s no work for them at home,” he said.

Cryan and his team of detectives have used anti-gangland legislation to arrest and question those involved in the fraud. 

“It is invoice redirect fraud and it is cyber enabled fraud, it is organised crime at its highest level. Some of the people involved were born here, some are here many, many years, some of them only here a wet week – some of them on false identities.

“€3.8m for example came in from Lebanon or Syria to an Irish account.

“The money is coming here from victims across the globe. There isn’t a country in the world where there hasn’t been an injured party. Upwards of €15m stolen from business in Chile, Russia, China, Palestine and the messages on the phones are coming from West Africa,” he concluded. 

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