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Europol’s Report Unveils Escalating Online Fraud Threat

Europol’s latest report, dubbed “Online Fraud Schemes: A Web of Deceit,” has sounded an alarm on the intensifying threat of online fraud. This eye-opening report unveils the multifaceted evolution of fraud and the far-reaching impact on both the European Union (EU) and global domains.

The report presents the tactics employed by crooks who are behind the skyrocketing online fraud cases. These scammers are getting craftier, using sophisticated methods that target people from all walks of life, causing chaos for individuals, companies, and institutions alike.

Sophisticated Techniques, Impacting Diverse Sectors

Key findings revealed within the report highlight the pervasive nature of online fraud, showcasing the considerable financial ramifications and widespread repercussions. Criminals exploit accessible crime-as-a-service resources, hitting victims repeatedly with complex tricks.

Of significant concern are the advanced social engineering techniques utilised by fraudsters, tailored to deceive different targets and fraud types.

Investment fraud and Business Email Compromise (BEC) reign supreme in the fraudsters playbook, primarily orchestrated by organised criminal networks.

With investment fraud, criminals sweet-talk victims into opening online trading accounts, offering tempting benefits. But that’s not all—they cleverly combine this scheme with other fraud tricks to target the same victims.

BEC strikes firms using digital tactics. From pretending to be top bosses for urgent payments (CEO fraud) to faking invoices or tweaking real ones, scammers exploit social engineering to pocket profits and hit businesses hard.

(Source: Europol Spotlight Report)

Furthermore, the report notes a concerning surge in charity scams, exploiting significant global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical crises, pulling at heartstrings for criminal gain.

Criminals even exploited the war in Ukraine. They targeted victims across the EU, masquerading as supporters of Ukraine. The report found that “The scammers created fake webpages to solicit money using URLs that included misleading keywords.” They also used fraudulent addresses to send fake emails pretending to raise funds, only to line their pockets under the guise of humanitarian efforts.

While old-school skimming methods might be losing their charm, as the report saw a decline in this method in the EU, the fraudsters have a new bag of tricks. A new trend of relay attacks on payment card chips and exploits in ATM security, including logical attacks, have been identified as emerging threats. Additionally, the move from using malware on the front-end to the back-end in digital skimming creates big problems for spotting and stopping these attacks.

(Source: Europol Spotlight Report)

The Future of Online Fraud

The report forewarns of an alarming projection: “Online fraud schemes are set to further expand in the future in terms of both harm and reach. New foci, new narratives, new products and new modi operandi will lure in more victims than ever. Investment fraud involving emerging products and growing economic sectors are likely to evolve too.”

The report forecasts a worsening scenario, predicting a surge in online fraud as scammers create new narratives and embrace advanced tech. The report stated, “The growth of new technologies such as ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence (AI) variants of large language models (LLMs) will open them up to misuse, adding complexity to the existing threat. Against a backdrop of the rising trend in generative AI models, unethical variants of ChatGPT – such as WormGPT and FraudGPT – are set to evolve.”

Call to Action

Europol isn’t just issuing warnings—they’re calling for action. They urge a united front across borders, with heightened vigilance and proactive measures to respond to the evolving landscape and counteract these sophisticated criminal activities.

As we embark on a new year, it is imperative to bolster cybersecurity infrastructure, ramp up fraud detection mechanisms, and empower the public with awareness to shield against the ever-evolving dangers of online fraud.

Only through collaborative efforts, information sharing, and investment in cutting-edge technologies will be instrumental in fortifying defences and ensuring a more resilient digital landscape for the safety and security of all.

Val Dockrell is a London-based Senior Investigator and Open Source Intelligence (“OSINT”) specialist who has led in-depth investigations in multiple jurisdictions around the world. She also speaks several languages and is a member of the Fraud Women’s Network. Her X (formerly Twitter) handle is @ValDockrell.