PRETORIA – South African police said Wednesday they have smashed an international cybercrime network operating out of Pretoria which led to 20 arrests in a joint operation with the United States.
US homeland security officers worked with South Africa to bring down a syndicate running a “cyber, mass-marketing fraud scheme” with “strong links” to the United States, operating out of Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa.
Twenty people were arrested in South Africa, the United States and also Canada Tuesday in the “Scams ‘R’ Us” operation, said US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Nicole Navas.
The investigation was launched in 2011, after a Mississippi woman who was the victim of a “sweetheart scam” — when a person wins over the affection of another to gain access to personal information — contacted US officials.
The syndicate had flourished by purchasing goods from US postal services with fraudulent credit cards or personal information, then selling the packages online in South Africa.
“People need to be aware that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” said Navas, adding that the “Scams ‘R’ Us” scheme defrauded people out of “millions of US dollars.”
Eleven Nigerians and one South African woman were due to appear in court in Pretoria on Wednesday before being extradited to the US.
In the US they will appear in Mississippi to face charges of “wire fraud, bank fraud, access device fraud, mail fraud, aggravated identity theft, theft of government funds and money laundering,” according to a statement released by the South African police.
As Africa experiences explosive growth in technology infrastructure, cybercrimes are on the rise.
Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has long been a cybercrime hotbed.
Sylvia Papadopoulos, a practicing attorney and Internet law lecturer at the University of Pretoria, said the country became notorious in the late 1990s for its “419” scheme, a type of impersonation fraud named after a section in Nigeria’s criminal code.
Since then, she said the schemes have become more complex. “You’re most at risk with the larger groups. They’re very sophisticated, they’re very organized, and very slick,” said Papadopoulos.
“Syndicates that are well organized and sophisticated are constantly thinking of ways to make you part with your personal information,” she said. “Unfortunately that results in an empty bank account.”
Still, she added, people must be vigilant and protect their personal information.
“You can have all the legislation in place,” said Papadopoulos, “but you can’t legislate against people’s stupidity.”
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