Posted on 21 Oct 2023
If there is one thing you can say about scammers, it is that they have a good understanding of current affairs. Whether it be the COVID-19 pandemic or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, news events are a potential weapon for scammers.
In 2022, as sanctions were imposed on Russia, gas prices rose and blasts damaged the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the idea of a ‘freezing Europe’ was used as propaganda by Russian media. It was this message that a scam call centre in Ukraine used to dupe an elderly Russian, who thought they were investing in Nord Stream 2. It turned out to be a fake investment and they lost all their money.
Call centres such as this operate not only in Ukraine, but all over the world – including India, Latvia, China, Mexico and Bulgaria. According to Truecaller, a company that specializes in blocking spam calls, Americans collectively lost nearly US$30 billion to scammers in 12 months between 2021 and 2022, and one in three US citizens reported having fallen for a phone scam at least once. In just three months in 2023, Hiya, another company that protects users from fraud calls, detected 6.5 billion spam calls worldwide – over 70 million calls a day.
Scam hard, play hard
Investigations by various news outlets have provided a glimpse into the professional hierarchy of these call centres – from junior ‘sales managers’ and more experienced ‘closers’ to ‘retention managers’ and the head of the office. The youthful office environment has been compared to the film The Wolf of Wall Street, with motivational speeches, high staff turnover and wild parties.
The sales managers, who receive dialect training, are mostly young people, mainly students and recent graduates. Their job is to get the victim to make an initial deposit, usually a relatively small one. If the person on the other end of the phone is hesitant about sending the money, the closer steps in, a skilled social engineer who can impersonate a more senior and specialist position to help close the deal.
Once the initial deposit has been made, the victim is handed over to the retention manager, whose sole purpose is to squeeze as much money out of them as possible. This is where tens of thousands, and sometimes millions, can be made from a single target. It is difficult to quantify exactly how much money is lost through this type of fraud, but in 2022 the FBI estimated that US citizens had been defrauded of around US$12 billion dollars by call centres based in India alone.
Organized crime involvement
In June 2023, eight bodies were found near Guadalajara, Mexico, identified as the missing employees of a scam call centre. It was reported that this call centre was run by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and that the workers had been killed because they had tried to quit their jobs. In Cambodia, criminal gangs lure people under false pretences before forcing them into what has been coined ‘cyber slavery’. The victims are then forced to run online scams.
In Ukraine, 10 members of a criminal organization were arrested and charged in a raid in the Dnipropetrovsk region, including a prominent vor v zakone (thief-in-law) known as Lasha Svan. They are alleged to have been the organizers behind scam call centres targeting mainly Latvian citizens.
There are also a number of stories about the drug trafficking organization Khimprom, a group that has captured a significant share of the drug market in Ukraine. Its leader is alleged to be involved in scam call centres.
There are thought to be hundreds – if not thousands – of scam call centres in Ukraine. According to the sanctioned Russian bank Sberbank, the vast majority target Russians. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s work in Ukraine during this conflict has shown that the idea of the ‘patriotic criminal’ has become widespread. In Odesa, pro-Russian criminals have either left or gone underground, and pro-Ukrainian criminals have become ‘hyper-patriotic’ – even reportedly patrolling the streets with law enforcement. Some vory (members of mafia-style organizations), once based in the occupied eastern part of Ukraine, have now crossed the line and authorized criminals under their command to fight against Russia.
A similar approach has been adopted by scam call centres, which have exploited patriotic sentiments to recruit new workers, with job advertisements asking questions such as ‘Do you want to help your country undermine the economy of the aggressor country?’. The Russian Federal Security Service also claims that scam call centres have been weaponized in Ukraine’s response to the war. In April 2023, Russian media claimed that elderly Russians had been tricked by scammers into setting fire to military offices and officials’ cars, and shouting pro-Ukrainian slogans, although Kyiv has not commented on the allegations.
Ukraine’s GDP has shrunk by 30% since the war broke out, with the economy largely supported through loans from Western backers. Most of the money generated through scam call centres, however, does not benefit Ukraine’s faltering economy, as it is siphoned off by criminal groups into the offshore world or cryptocurrencies, evading tax. Like many crimes of this kind, it is often seen as victimless. However, this is not the case – billions of dollars are stolen every year from victims, some of whom have taken their own lives after being scammed. There is only one real winner, organized crime.
Scam call centres are a blight on the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to have any dealings with them. They come to you with promises of a short cut to wealth, to fix a non-existent issue with your computer, claiming to be from a charity, threatening you with arrest for unpaid taxes.
There are 70 million of these phone calls worldwide every day and they generate billions of dollars each year. Organized crime is very much a part of this industry from Mexico to India and from the Philippines to Ukraine.
In this episode we delve into the hundreds, possibly thousands of scam call centres based in Ukraine, where investment scams are mainly targeting Russians.