Cross Border CrimeNews

Busted: 9 arrested in hit against holiday-rental fraudsters

Europol supported the Romanian Police (Politia Romana) and the Spanish National Police (Policía Nacional) in an operation that led to the arrest of nine scammers engaged in the publishing of fake advertisements for cheap holiday rentals. Although this sort of cyber fraud is not new, the level of sophistication exhibited by the gang involved in this case is unprecedented, and a multifaceted investigation was required to crack the case.

During the operation on 19 March, law enforcement authorities also conducted 22 house searches in Sibiu and Vâlcea, Romania, where the gang was located. The group operated internationally and had branches in Spain.

The operation led to the seizure of:

  • over EUR 174 000 and RON 41 000 in cash
  • 55 g of gold
  • electronic devices, including 135 mobile phones, 29 laptops, 5 tablets, 23 memory sticks, and 326 SIM cards, among others.

Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre supported the investigation by providing extensive analytical support. In response to the scale of the crime, Europol brought together national investigators from Romania and Spain. The investigators worked together to establish a joint strategy and prepare the final phase of the investigation. The information exchange was facilitated by the Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce (J-CAT), hosted at Europol’s headquarters. On the action day, a Europol analyst was deployed to Romania to assist with the investigative measures.

A professional and systematic criminal network

The criminals operated in a sophisticated professional structure comprised of three groups, each with a specific task. One group was responsible for coordinating the gang, while another was in charge of posting fake advertisements on both genuine selling sites and fraudulent phishing platforms. A third group recruited money mules to launder profits acquired from the illegal activities.

Although most of the published advertisements listed holiday rentals, criminals would also publicise second-hand cars and electronic devices. According to authorities, the amount spent per victim ranged between EUR 200 and EUR 10 000.

The criminal organisation also conducted a type of phishing scam called a Business Email Compromise. The criminals would use malware to intercept victims’ emails and mislead them into sending funds to accounts owned by the criminal network.

Romanian and Spanish police believe that the number of victims impacted by this scam could exceed one thousand. The police also noted that the victims were mainly from Spain. Through all of these illegal activities, the criminal organisation garnered profits estimated to amount to millions of euros.

Fake online advertisements ruin holidays

Holiday fraud happens when a victim pays a travel agent, private entity or agency for rental services offered online, such as accommodation, transport tickets, rental cars or complete holiday packages to then find out that the service does not exist.