Singapore joining Interpol-led global financial crime task force looking into COVID-19 vaccine scams
SINGAPORE: Singapore is joining an Interpol-led global financial crime task force looking into a number of areas, including COVID-19 vaccine scams.
The task force, initially comprising Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland, will look at illicit money flows in transnational financial crimes and how countries can combat these crimes more effectively.
The task force has three “clear priorities” to start with, Interpol director of cybercrime Craig Jones told CNA at its global complex for innovation in Singapore last week. This is the base from which the world police body fights cybercrime internationally.
“The second one is looking at the counterfeiting or the facilitating of the (COVID-19) vaccines, whether it's online or in the vaccines actually being shipped out,” said Mr Jones, who will be leading the task force.
This comes as Interpol has seen an increasing trend of online COVID-19 vaccine scams as countries roll out their vaccination programmes, with the networks conducting these scams having possible financial links in Singapore and other major financial hubs.
“There is nowhere to go online to buy a vaccine at the moment. People need to understand this,” Mr Jones said.
“But again, what the criminals are then preying on is the vulnerability of communities – that fear, effectively. But also using the technology as well in order to carry out those crimes.”
Interpol said in a news release on Mar 24 that cyber criminals have set up illicit websites claiming to be legitimate national or world organisations offering pre-orders for COVID-19 vaccines. These websites offer to get payment in Bitcoin and other processing methods.
“Using trademark logos of major pharmaceutical companies producing approved COVID-19 vaccines, the fake websites are suspected of being used to conduct phishing attacks and/or dupe victims into giving charitable donations,” Interpol said.
“In addition to opening up their computer to cyberattacks when attempting to purchase alleged COVID-19 vaccines online, people also run the risk of having their identity stolen.”
Interpol secretary-general Jurgen Stock said in a statement that the networks behind these crimes have “global ambitions”.
“Interpol is assisting law enforcement around the world to both identify criminal networks and to dismantle them,” he said.
The world police body will also organise a global virtual meeting with its member countries to discuss the threats and disruption methods in this area.
TRANSNATIONAL VACCINE SCAM
Interpol announced on Mar 3 that South African authorities had seized hundreds of fake COVID-19 vaccines following an Interpol global alert warning that vaccines would be a prime target for criminal networks.
About 400 ampoules, or around 2,400 doses, of the fake vaccine were found in a warehouse in South Africa, where officers also recovered a large quantity of fake 3M masks and arrested three Chinese nationals and a Zambian national.
In China, police successfully identified a network selling counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines, raided its manufacturing premises and arrested about 80 suspects. More than 3,000 fake vaccines were seized at the scene, Interpol said.
When asked if this transnational network selling fake COVID-19 vaccines had any links to Singapore, Mr Jones said: “There's links everywhere.”
“The links are there. So, what we see specifically sometimes is where the money flows. The criminals will look at any infrastructure that is able to facilitate those money movements,” he added.
“So, there are a number of different links on our operations to countries that either have those financial centres as well.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Health has said it is aware of scam sites falsely claiming to offer registration for COVID-19 vaccination, while the police had on Feb 4 warned the public against “falling prey” to these vaccine scams.
The public should be wary of COVID-19 vaccination text messages that come with an unofficial URL, or those that request for payment to get early access to the vaccines, the police advised.
TACKLING COVID-19 SUPPORT SCHEME FRAUD
Besides COVID-19 vaccine scams, Mr Jones said the task force will also look into business email compromise scams, and identify criminals who exploit government schemes that have been set up to support businesses during the pandemic.
“So we’re working with those countries directly at the moment, trying to understand what is that threat picture,” Mr Jones said, adding that Interpol will bring in more pilot countries in the coming months.
“What we hope is we'll be able to grow that into another global programme effectively.”
The idea for the Interpol task force was first suggested by Deputy Secretary (International and Training) for Home Affairs T Raja Kumar, Mr Jones said, adding that Singapore has made a “strong commitment” to contribute extra staff to Interpol on short-term secondments.
In response to queries from CNA, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said Singapore is joining the task force due to a need for greater international cooperation against the rising threat of cyber fraud globally.
“The situation has visibly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic with more people working from home and transacting online,” an MHA spokesperson said. “Cyber criminals have taken advantage of this opportunity.”
The task force’s purpose is to create a global anti-scam network, linking law enforcement operational units across the world to share intelligence, insights and best practices, as well as to coordinate operations effectively, the spokesperson said.
As a founding member of the task force, Singapore will share its own insights from the setting up of its national Anti-Scam Centre, the spokesperson said.
This includes the crime typologies it has identified, how it has leveraged technology to facilitate speedier retrieval of information, and its close partnership with banks to enable prompt action to freeze bank accounts suspected to be used to receive and transfer proceeds of crime.
“Singapore hopes to bring down the number of cyber-enabled financial crimes at both the global and national levels, through the combined international effort of the task force, to disrupt criminal syndicates and recover illicit funds,” the spokesperson said.
“Singapore is committed to supporting Interpol as it sets up the task force. Our Anti-Scam Centre stands ready to share its experience, and cooperate with Interpol and the task force members to combat cyber fraud.”
FIGHTING GLOBAL CYBERCRIME FROM SINGAPORE
In the bigger picture, Mr Jones said the basing of Interpol’s global cybercrime programme in Singapore carries “massive significance”, adding that the country has the digital capabilities to link up with the rest of the region and the world.
CNA was given a rare look at Interpol’s cyber fusion centre in Singapore, where the global police body works with international law enforcement agencies and private partners like banks and cybersecurity companies to analyse the global cybercrime threat picture.
“We collect that data and those indicators around cybercrime,” Mr Jones said.
“We then analyse it, evaluate it, and the ultimate outcome from that is to disseminate that back out for our member countries. The purpose of that is to identify those vulnerabilities, or those operations that we can then instigate with those member countries.”
While Interpol does not have the jurisdiction to arrest suspects in a country, Mr Jones said it can provide critical cybercrime information that member countries can then use, in line with their national laws and financial statutes, to execute operations.
For instance in January last year, an Interpol-coordinated cyber operation against a strain of malware targeting e-commerce websites identified hundreds of compromised websites and led to the arrest of three individuals running the malicious campaign in Indonesia.
Operation Night Fury was conceived in Singapore when one of Interpol’s private partners, cybersecurity firm Group-IB, discovered an online vulnerability in an e-commerce payment system.
“They brought that to us ... we were then able to identify that the actors actually sat within the region,” Mr Jones said.
“And then we worked with them, with the Indonesians and the other members of the ASEAN cybercrime desk there to then effect an operational outcome.”
Authorities in Singapore also identified and took down two command and control servers controlled by the cyber criminals, Interpol said.
Mr Jones said the fact that the malware attack affected customers globally showed that cybercrime transcends borders.
“It’s a global threat but it impacts locally, so it can impact here in Singapore, it can impact in Germany, it can impact in America,” he added.
“You then have the local police going along or taking the victim statements, but actually then it's a transnational crime. And that's where Interpol is absolutely key in this, to do that coordination work and being able to join the dots up effectively.”