The Cyber Crime Unit within the Malta Police Force handled over 1,080 cases in 2018, compared to the 51 cases per year it would typically see when it was first founded in 2003, according to Inspector Timothy Zammit.
Speaking to MaltaChamber.org.mt about the recent spate of fraudulent posts on Facebook, purporting to be Maltese public figures, in order to trick people into handing over their money, Inspector Zammit said that while the Cyber Crime Unit dealt with various aspects of online crime, instances of fraud were on the rise.
“We noted a 24 per cent increase in fraud cases between 2017 and 2018. Scams are becoming a lot more sophisticated nowadays. Instead of sending out an email telling 10,000 people that they have won the lottery, the perpetrators are doing more homework, and targeting more specific groups of people,” Inspector Zammit said.
Inspector Zammit said such scams often made use of like-farming – the practice of amassing thousands of followers on a Facebook page focused on, say, fitness. Then, once it had reached a credible number of followers, the people behind it would change the topic of the page to something completely different, which had to do with the fraudulent financial investments they were trying to promote.
“Facebook won’t let you change the address of a page after a certain number of followers have been reached – so you’ll have a page on bitcoin investment with an address related to healthy living, for instance,” he said.
The quality of the Maltese used on such scam pages is often very good, and the police were concerned that there could be local involvement. However, Inspector Zammit said it’s more likely that the perpetrators are using increasingly sophisticated online translation tools, and replicating the content to target people from different countries.
“Our indications show that such pages are administered from non-EU countries, typically in Asia. The same fraudsters who used to send out lottery or inheritance emails have perfected their technique to be more credible, but the principles are the same. It’s just that tell-tale signs are harder to recognise.”
“We work with international organisations such as Europol and Interpol in order to be able to share Intelligence about issues we are coming across and pool our resources to find them. Between 90 and 95 per cent of our investigations have an international element – even if the victim and perpetrator are both in Malta, the service they are using is likely based abroad.”
Online scams typically increase around the end of the year. “During November and December, money is tight, and some people can’t keep up, so when what looks like a quick-fix solution comes along, they’ll be more willing to take a bite,” Inspector Zammit says. “At the same time, so much money is spent at this time of year, that if the scammer is targeting a company, the person in charge may be more willing to sign off on expenses without a second thought.”
“Life is so fast-paced now that it’s making us all more vulnerable to scams. Emails that would raise alarm bells on a large computer screen may easily go undetected on a smaller smartphone screen.”
Victim reports started coming in towards the end of December and the beginning of January. “Individual losses range from €250 to €750. It may not sound like a lot of money but put together, it runs into the thousands. And while reports have slowed down, we’re still coming across a few new ones each week.”
Inspector Zammit said that when it comes to cybercrime, prevention is always more effective than cure.
“As recent cases in the media have shown, it’s extremely difficult to recover funds once they have been sent. The reason is that criminals nowadays are very fast – there are systems in place to withdraw those funds and move them elsewhere immediately.”
“We’re trying to challenge the thought process of click first, deal with consequences later. You have to stop, count to three, and think about what you’re going to do. The internet is in itself a source of information – use it to check whether people are who they say they are. The same precautions you take in life have to be taken online too.”