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Eight arrested in UK over ‘hijacking’ of American celebrities’ phones

Eight men have been arrested in the UK over a string of sim card-swapping attacks against well-known US influencers, sports stars and musicians.

The men, aged between 18 and 26, were arrested in England and Scotland on Tuesday following a year-long international investigation involving the FBI and US Secret Service.

Throughout 2020, they targeted thousands of high-profile victims by deactivating their sim cards and moving the phone number over to another sim belonging to a member of the criminal network, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

To do this, hackers usually rely on a corrupt insider working at a phone company or use phishing scams to get enough information to convince the phone service provider to do the swap.

After gaining control of the phone number, they use the “change password” function on apps, which allows them to receive reset codes via SMS or compromised email accounts to take over the victim’s accounts.

This enabled the gang to steal money, bitcoin and personal information, including contacts synced with online accounts, and hijack social media accounts to post content and send messages masquerading as their victims.

The investigation discovered the gang targeted thousands of victims throughout 2020, stealing more than $100m (about £72m) in cryptocurrencies, Europol said.

NCA and US investigators notified individuals when they had been targeted and, where possible, prior to the criminals managing to cause any damage. The victims were then advised on how to prevent the impending attack.

Europol said the arrests in England and Scotland followed earlier ones in Malta and Belgium of two other members belonging to the same criminal network.

The operation was coordinated by the NCA and involved officers from Police Scotland, the Metropolitan Police Service, East Midlands and North East Special Operations Units, and the West Midlands Regional Organised Crime Unit.

The men arrested are facing prosecution for alleged offences under the Computer Misuse Act, fraud and money laundering and could be extradited to the US.

Paul Creffield, head of operations in the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit, said: “Sim-swapping requires significant organisation by a network of cybercriminals, who each commit various types of criminality to achieve the desired outcome.

“This network targeted a large number of victims in the US and regularly attacked those they believed would be lucrative targets, such as famous sports stars and musicians.

“In this case, those arrested face prosecution for offences under the Computer Misuse Act, as well as fraud and money laundering as well as extradition to the USA for prosecution.

“As well as causing a lot of distress and disruption, we know they stole large sums from their victims, from either their bank accounts or bitcoin wallets.

“Cybercriminality is not restricted by borders and our efforts to tackle it reflect that.”

Michael D’Ambrosio, assistant director of the US Secret Service Office of Investigations, added: “The Secret Service would like to thank our domestic and international law enforcement partners for their steadfast commitment and cooperation in this case.

“The Secret Service and our law enforcement partners remain ready to combat transnational crimes and to hold offenders accountable.”


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