The Malta Independent 15 April 2021, Thursday

Updated: Maltese teenager amongst 10 arrested as police bust gang hijacking celeb phones

Associated Press Thursday, 11 February 2021, 07:01 Last update: about 2 months ago

A Maltese teenager was among 10 arrested in Europe for allegedly hijacking mobile phones belonging to U.S. celebrities including internet influencers, sports stars and musicians to steal personal information and millions in cryptocurrency, authorities said.

Maltese police said in a statement that one of the ten arrested is a Maltese 17-year-old boy who was first arrested in November 2019.

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In a statement, the Malta Police Force said that the involvement of Maltese police began in November 2019, when the police’s cyber-crime unit received information directly from the United States about a Maltese suspect who had allegedly illegally obtained access to the instagram accounts of a number of celebrities and subsequently tried to hold the victims to ransom.

It turned out that the suspected was part of a group of people being investigated by US secret services.

 

After investigations by the Cyber Crime unit and the Financial Crimes Investigation Department, a 17-year-old boy was arrested. Searches at the residence where he lives resulted in the finding of a number of electronic devices, luxury clothing, and other things which were allegedly purchased with stolen credit cards.

The European Union police agency Europol said Wednesday that the gang is believed to have stolen more than $100 million in cryptocurrencies by using so-called SIM swap attacks.

These attacks involve deactivating a victim's mobile phone SIM card, either by tricking the phone company or using a corrupt insider, so that the number can be transferred to another card under the gang's control.

Police said that it was initially thought that the criminal act only involved the Maltese boy and other people in the US and in the UK – however further investigations established that there could be other members of this criminal group in other countries.

Last spring, a joint cyber action task force, coordinated by Europol, was put together to identify more members of this group.  Information gathered by Maltese police resulted in investigations being opened in other countries, and on Tuesday eight persons from Canada, the UK, and Belgium were arrested.

Investigations into the Maltese person involved in this case are still ongoing.

Charges against him have not been filed yet because it is still being established what exactly the boy’s involvement was in this criminal ring.

The new developments this week will now be analysed and the related charges will be filed, police said.

Inspector Timothy Zammit, who heads the Cyber Crime unit within the police said that such successes are down to the many times behind the scenes work in continuously collaborating with authorities in other countries in the fight against criminality on the internet.

 

Zammit said that one of the most important resources for them is the good relations between them and other enforcement agencies abroad, and noted that thanks to work like this, the internet is a safer place.

The arrests were the result of a joint investigation by U.K., U.S., Canadian, Belgian and Maltese police, Europol said.

Europol didn't specify the nationalities of those caught in the sweep, but the U.K.'s National Crime Agency said a day earlier that eight men were arrested in England and Scotland. Two others were arrested previously in Belgium and Malta, Europol said.

Neither agency identified the celebrity victims.

Investigators found that after accessing victims' phone numbers, they were able to take control of apps or accounts by requesting password reset codes sent via SMS. Then they were able to steal money, cryptocurrencies and personal information, including contacts synced online, as well as hack into and post from social media accounts, Europol said.

Europol has warned that SIM swapping is a growing threat carried out by fraudsters.

 

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