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Police have arrested 130 suspects in connection with cyber fraud at 140 airports around the world in an international law enforcement operation.
According to Europol, fraudulent online purchases of airline tickets using stolen credit card data is the fastest growing type of fraud, and is estimated to have resulted in €1bn in losses to the airline industry.
Europol said that because airline ticket fraud is a complex and global phenomenon posing certain security issues, targeting the organised crime groups active in this requires communication between airlines, issuing banks, payment card schemes, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and law enforcement on an international level.
However, increased commitment from law enforcement agencies, the private sector and international organisations, enabled the operation to be conducted at airports in 25 countries in Europe and 24 other countries in Asia, Australia, America and Africa.
Thirty-three airlines and 5 travel agencies in Europe reported fraudulent incidents to law enforcement deployed at the airports during the operation on 16 and 17 June 2015.
Payment card schemes, card issuers, Perseuss and IATA supported the operation by providing information to confirm any suspicious fraudulent airline ticket transactions. Other international organisations such as Eurojust and Frontex, which deployed officers in 12 airports in Europe, also supported the operation.
A command post was set up at Europol's European Cybercrime Centre (EC3), which was complemented by command posts at Interpol in Singapore, Ameripol in Bogota and another one in Canada. At Europol's command post, representatives from airlines, American Express, MasterCard and Visa worked closely to identify suspicious transactions and then send confirmation to law enforcement deployed at the airports.
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Officers from EC3 were present in Singapore and Bogota, while Europol also deployed mobile offices to Athens, London, Madrid and Paris, giving direct, secure access to Europol's centralised databases and analysis tools.
During the operation, 222 suspicious transactions were reported by the industry (163 in Europe, 23 in Asia Pacific, 18 in Latin America and 18 in Canada). As a result, 130 persons were detained, denied boarding the flights and questioned by police (101 in Europe, 11 in Asia Pacific, 10 in Latin America, 2 in the USA and 6 in Canada).
According to Europol, purchasing plane tickets online using compromised credit cards is often linked to other forms of crime. During this latest operation, some of those arrested were involved in other forms of crimes, including trafficking of human beings, illegal immigration, smuggling of goods, drug trafficking, fraud, cyber crime and terrorism.
"This operation was the culmination of many months of meticulous planning between Europol, law enforcement, prosecuting and border control agencies, airlines and credit card companies, and is a perfect example of how our combined forces can track down the organised crime gangs involved in this large-scale fraud and other offences,” said Europol deputy director of operations Wil van Gemert.
“Along with our partners, we are committed to continue developing new levels of co-operation and new methods for fighting this type of crime," he added.
Meta Backman, from the European Airlines Fraud Prevention Group, said that as a result of the operation, airlines can already see improved co-operation with card issuing banks, card schemes and law enforcement in their daily fight against credit card fraud. “Without the determination and effort of EC3 this could not have happened,” he said.
The operation against airline fraudsters is part of Operation Blue Amber, a series of international actions tackling organised crime in various locations across the world.
Europol said it will continue to support EU Member States, working closely with the private sector and other international organisations, to improve security at the airports by fighting this type of online fraud.
In November 2014, 118 suspects, including around 40 in the UK, were arrested in a similar global law enforcement operation that involved more than 60 airlines at 80 airports in 45 countries.