After a year-long investigation, police in Europe say they have arrested 106 people in connection with a large cybercrime ring that is closely linked to the Italian mafia.
The group, which cops say operated out of a headquarters in Spain’s Canary Islands, is alleged to have defrauded hundreds of victims by carrying out a variety of online schemes—including phishing operations, business email compromise attacks, and SIM swapping. Criminal operations allegedly encompassed a wide range of activities, including “online fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and property crime.”
Police said they had recently raided 16 houses in Spain and Italy as part of the investigation, seizing “many electronic devices.” Items commonly used in online fraud, such as SIM cards, 224 credit cards, and point-of-sale terminals, were all confiscated.
The full extent to which the mafia was involved with the group is not made entirely clear in press releases, though Spanish police said that the criminals largely operated from a headquarters in “the south of #Tenerife [the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands] and laundered money for Italian mafia clans,” including “Casamonica, Camorra napolitana, Nuvoletta and Sacra Corona Unita.”
“This large criminal network was very well organised in a pyramid structure, which included different specialised areas and roles,” said Europol, which provided technical support for the investigation. “Among the members of the criminal group were computer experts, who created the phishing domains and carried out the cyber fraud; recruiters and organisers of the money muling; and money laundering experts, including experts in cryptocurrencies.”
Police claim many of the schemes involved tricking victims into sending the hackers large sums of money—a pretty good description of what a BEC attack looks like. After filching the funds, the criminals would then help to launder the money through “a wide network of money mules and shell companies,” Europol said. Authorities added that such operations generated as much as 10 million euros last year.
The extent to which the mafia is involved in cybercrime has long been a topic of speculation and debate. Common wisdom has held that mafia groups are increasingly engrossed in online schemes, though the degree to which they have penetrated such markets is still not particularly well understood.
Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate (DIA) recently published a report in which it alleged that organized crime groups were increasingly turning to the dark web, as well as to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and monero, to obscure their illicit dealings. The report further claimed that, much like other industries, covid-19 has driven the mafia increasingly online—as social distancing policies continue to hamper their real-world business activities and supply chains.