FBI and Hawks bust ‘romance’ syndicate

Argus / Sisonke Mlamla

Eight leaders of a transnational syndicate are expected to appear in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court today, for allegedly preying on victims, many of them vulnerable widows or divorcees.

The foreigners, aged 33 to 52, were arrested by the Hawks and US law enforcement in a massive operation in the city at dawn yesterday.

The group was believed to be behind hundreds of thousands of “romance scams”.

These were allegedly perpetrated by members of a syndicate which used dating sites to meed elderly men and women from around the world who were either widowed or divorced, and scammed them out of their money.

Hawks spokesperson Katlego Mogale confirmed that the eight suspects were arrested for internet scams, money laundering and international wide-scale financial fraud.

Agencies involved in a joint operation included the FBI, US Secret Service Investigations, Interpol, and assistance from the Hawks Serious Commercial Crime Investigation unit, Crime Intelligence, K9, the National Intervention unit, the Special Task Force, the Tactical Operations Management Section, Criminal Record Centre and the metro police.

Mogale said the operation was initiated based on mutual legal assistance from the Central Authorities of the US that was approved by the South African government.

“All suspects were arrested during a large-scale operation and will be charged with a variety of financial crimes, including conspiracy to commit wire/mail and money laundering,” said Mogale.

She said the suspects allegedly used social media and online dating websites to find and connect with their victims.

“Other modus operandi used by the suspects includes business email compromise, where email accounts are diverted in order to change banking details. They assumed fake names and trolled dating sites,” she said.

Mogale said once (the suspects) had ingratiated themselves with their victims, they allegedly concocted sob stories about why they needed money – taxes to release an inheritance, essential overseas travel, crippling debt – and tren siphoned money from victim’s accounts to the tune of R100 million.

The FBI estimated that more than 100 people had lost more than R100 million in romance scams from 2011 to date.

Cybersecurity expert Professor Bruce Watson, head of Information Science at Stellenbosch University, said most of the syndicates were well organised and had a well thought-through playbook, which actually worked.

“We’re not talking about some teenage hackers, but rather a form of organised cyber-criminals,” he said.

Watson said the police needed to hire more technologically savvy officers to help deal with this type of crime.

“That is difficult because cyber-security experts are expensive. If the police do not do this, we have a risk in South Africa of the further privatisation of cybersecurity, similar to what we already see with armed response companies partially taking on the role of the police force,” Watson said.

He said it was worth nothing that people could do a lot to protect themselves, and the police could help to educate the population.

“A good public service campaign would help people to understand what they risk by putting personal information online, and how to look out for cat-fishing and other scams,” he said.

Community Safety MEC Albert Fritz commended the work of the Hawks in the matter. He said reports indicated that they worked closely with US authorities, and it really was encouraging to see that kind of international collaboration.

“We look forward to further reports of the police dismantling criminal networks that have taken root in our shores,” said Fritz.