Police in Malta and the United Kingdom this week made eight arrests of criminals accused of hacking the telephones of celebrities and influencers to steal an estimated $100 million in cryptocurrencies.
The arrests came about after the arrest in Roeselare in West Flanders of a minor youth engaged in sim-swapping – a technique that allows the criminal to take over control of a distant mobile phone, and then proceed to manage the victim’s personal details, passwords, bank accounts and social media accounts.
That arrest led to another in Malta, and an international investigation coordinated by Europol in The Hague, culminating in eight new arrests in England and Scotland this week.
The arrest that started the ball rolling took place in May last year, but details were withheld while the investigation continued. The youth in Roeselare was found to be in possession of a variety of data storage devices, which were seized and analysed.
“In addition, the police could gain access to various wallets with virtual currencies, and those virtual currencies, jewellery and luxury goods were also seized,” a police spokesperson said.
Working together, the gang used the technique of sim-swapping, which Europol describes thus:
“It involves cybercriminals taking over use of a victim’s phone number by essentially deactivating their SIM and porting the allocated number over to a SIM belonging to a member of the criminal network. This is typically achieved by the criminals exploiting phone service providers to do the swap on their behalf, either via a corrupt insider or using social engineering techniques.”
The eight suspects arrested in the UK are aged between 18 and 26.
“This network targeted a large number of victims in the US and regularly attacked those they believed would be lucrative targets, such as famous sports stars and musicians,” said Paul Creffield, head of operations in the National Cyber Crime Unit of Britain’s National Crime Agency.
“As well as causing a lot of distress and disruption, we know they stole large sums from their victims, from either their bank accounts or bitcoin wallets.”
The Belgian youth, meanwhile, will appear before a youth magistrate.