Four Chinese nationals living in Sydney have been charged in relation to a crime syndicate allegedly involved in a cyber scam responsible for $US100m ($A150m) in losses globally.
The four men – aged 27, 24, 19 and 19 – have been charged with proceeds of crime related offences.
AFP investigators allege the syndicate was using Chinese nationals living in Australia – predominantly students – to build the infrastructure to facilitate the scam.
A search warrant of a Pyrmont residence on October 20 led to the charging of two 19-year-old Chinese nationals.
Police allege they registered Australian companies with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to enhance the legitimate appearance of the fraud and also established Australian business bank accounts to launder the proceeds of crime.
They were each charged with one count of recklessly dealing with proceeds of crime.
A 24-year-old and a 27-year-old were arrested at Sydney and Melbourne airports while attempting to fly to Hong Kong on one-way tickets.
Police allege the two men are the “Australian controllers of the syndicate”. They were each charged with one count of dealing in proceeds of crime worth $10m or more.
The maximum penalty for this crime is 15 years imprisonment.
The US Secret Service first notified the AFP of Australian links to the predominantly US-based scam in August 2022.
“The (alleged) highly sophisticated scam involves the unlawful manipulation of legitimate electronic trading platforms, normally licensed to foreign exchange brokers who then provide the software to their clients,” an AFP spokesman said.
AFP Cyber Command then began a parallel investigation – codenamed Operation Wickham – in co-operation with NSW Police Force.
It led the Criminal Assets Taskforce to restrain $22.5m in 24 bank accounts allegedly linked to the criminal syndicate.
Investigations into the true scope of the alleged fraud on potential Australian victims is ongoing.
Police allege the syndicate uses dating sites, employment sites and messaging platforms to gain a victim’s trust before mentioning investment opportunities.
The victims are then directed to both fraudulent and legitimate investment applications that deal in foreign exchange and cryptocurrency.
The applications are “maliciously manipulated” to show a false positive return on investments.
The syndicate then recruits victims to subscribe to a financial investment service and manipulates the data to encourage further investment while concealing their money has actually been stolen.
An analysis of victim reports by police has identified more than $US100m ($A150m) in losses worldwide, with the majority of victims being based in the US.
More and more people are falling victim to cyber scams every day and in some cases losing their life savings, AFP Detective Sergeant Salam Zreika said.
“It is essential people exercise the utmost caution if cold-approached online or on the phone by people trying to sell financial or investment services. Criminals are ruthless and will stop at nothing to take your money,” she said.
“Refrain from investing in foreign exchange, cryptocurrency or speculative investments with people you’ve only ever encountered in the online environment. If you are unsure, get a second opinion from a professional, in-person.”
US Secret Service attache Ike Barnes said the joint investigation was a prime example of collaboration in law enforcement’s effort to combat transnational criminal organisations.
The two men arrested last week have been remanded in custody to reappear before Downing Centre Court on January 18, 2023.
The two 19-year-old men are next scheduled to appear in Downing Centre Local Court on January 19, 2023.
Victims of cybercrime can report to police using Report Cyber at cyber.gov.au.
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