Cracking the criminal networks

An ANZ fraud investigator can tell a lot about how the economy is going and whether people are struggling - just by the type of jobs coming across their desks.

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This year – compared to last – it’s just busier. When people struggle, scams increase. Victims are more willing to believe what they are being told and criminals to exploit this.

"Police kicked off an expansive investigation across New South Wales and Victoria into a sophisticated criminal syndicate using ATMs, intimidation, fraud and gift certificates to launder millions in illegal proceeds of crime.”

“It's the easiest way to get quick money I guess,” experienced investigator Ross says.

Australians lost a record total of $3.1 billion to scams last year, an 80 per cent increase on 2021, according to ScamWatch. Almost 240,000 different scams were reported to the ACCC in 2022.

The seven-person ANZ External Fraud team investigates high-value, complex fraud matters where the bank has suffered a fraud or scam-related loss. 

The team works closely with other ANZ investigators within Customer Protection such as the digital fraud, card, scam and identity theft teams.

Teamwork pays off

Ross and Khaled have been working within the unit for 7 years and 5 years respectively and have formed a formidable partnership.

It helps they can bounce off their combined memory of previous crimes and how clues, suspects and new facts often fit together.

“I think that when you've got that background knowledge, you've seen so much activity. It comes and goes in waves,” Ross says.

While they work to protect customers, there is often a larger role which involves working with police to disrupt organised criminal activity.

“A lot of people underestimate the work of the bank in pursuing those responsible for committing fraud or scams against our customers and the community,” Khaled says.

“Criminals think it's not going to go anywhere. But they don't understand we have very good relationships with both State and Federal Police across Australia.

Their manager Michael – a former police officer and fraud investigator at one of the Big Four accounting firms – says Ross and Khaled’s actions recently disrupted a criminal syndicate operating mule accounts.

Their actions delivered them both a rare “Police Area Commander’s Certificate of Recognition”.

This assistance led to the arrest of 13 offenders, mostly students in southwest Sydney and 71 charges have been laid, according to NSW Police. The offenders are yet to be sentenced.

Expansive investigation

It started in 2021 when police kicked off an expansive investigation across New South Wales and Victoria into a sophisticated criminal syndicate using ATMs, intimidation, fraud and gift certificates to launder millions in illegal proceeds of crime.

Targeting international students, criminals would impersonate police and approach victims telling them they had a warrant for their arrest.

The criminals would intimidate the victim into buying gift cards under the threat of being “arrested”. The gift cards were then cashed in – an easy way to launder money – and the money put into bank accounts.

Police contacted ANZ to request information on which ATMs the criminals were withdrawing the funds from and to identify accounts which may have been fraudulently opened to launder the cash.

Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic made it easier for the scammers to target victims.

“Due to the lock downs, scammers were able to get hold of these victims because everyone was at home and had time to take the calls,” Khaled says.

Victims were convinced to hand over their personal information which was then used to open phoney bank accounts to be used for money laundering.

“They would then start going to all these different ATMs once they received the proceeds of crime and withdraw the funds,” Khaled says.

It was these ATMs the police wanted to identify.

Link analyses

Ross and Khaled are experts in so-called “link analyses”. In a world awash with information this involves grabbing one vague piece of data, such as a residential address or an old phone number.

The investigators then use their expertise to connect it to other bits of information to create a detailed picture of the illegal activity.

“Sometimes you get sent down rabbit holes and you've got so much information, it's overwhelming,” Ross says. “Other times it narrows it down to the actual offender. Or you’ll see money movements between accounts and you’ll realise, ‘hang on a minute. It's all going to this one person’.”

Once a culprit has been connected to an account, it can be linked to specific ATM transactions. Once this stage was completed, the pair sourced video footage to identify the people police were searching for.

This was the tip of the iceberg though, soon Ross and Khaled had many different individuals connected to the criminal network. The pair eventually  identified in 22 different people.

“In some cases - especially this one unfortunately - when there are students involved and where they get hired by a group to become a mule - it explodes. Because there's so many involved and it doesn't stop.”

The work can be emotionally draining and their drive to get an outcome can become all consuming, it’s very satisfying when there is a breakthrough and their hard work produces a good result.

“It's a part of our job to not just protect the bank, but protect the customer and the community,” Khaled says.

Marc Broome is Senior Manager of Complex Investigations with Customer Protection at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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