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German police bust Europe's 'largest' scam call center

May 2, 2024

Investigators teamed up with colleagues from the Balkans and Lebanon in raids set up by months of intense surveillance. Authorities say the operation thwarted over €10 million in damages and led to 21 arrests.

Four individuals, among them Baden-Württemberg's Minister for Justice and Migration Marion Gentges (l) and Interior Minister Thomas Strobl (second from l), at a May 2, 2024, press conference announcing a successful police operation against a network of fraud call centers
Authorities in Germany said 21 people were arrested in a sting operation last monthImage: Nico Pointner/dpa/picture alliance

Police in Germany announced on Thursday that they, along with colleagues from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Lebanon, had busted what is thought to have been Europe's largest scam call center.

In a separate statement, the European police agency Europol said that 12 call centers had been raided on April 18, and that 21 individuals had been arrested in the sting.

Thomas Strobl, interior minister in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, praised officers for having, "successfully uncovered what is probably the largest call center fraud scheme in Europe."

Europol said perpetrators would pose as, "close relatives, bank employees, customer service agents or police officers" in the scam, using any number of "manipulation tactics" to "shock and cheat their victims out of their savings."

Those tactics ranged from the threat of pending (fake) criminal penalties or asset seizure in the event of non-payment, to the promise of prizes or pre-paid debit cards. 

Police used 'Operation Pandora' to surveil scammers in real time

Dubbed "Operation Pandora," the sting began in Germany in December 2023, after a suspicious bank teller contacted police when a 76-year-old customer from Freiburg sought to hurriedly withdraw €120,000 ($128,232) from her savings account to hand over to a fake police officer.

When real police investigators tracked the internet-based telephone number that had been used to lure the woman, they discovered a veritable goldmine.

Hands typing on a smart phone
Police were able to intervene in around 6,000 cases of attempted fraud during 'Operation Pandora'Image: Thomas Trutschel/photothek/imago

Rather than shutting down the number, authorities instead went on the offensive, setting up their own call center in which hundreds of officers from Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin and Saxony worked around the clock monitoring some 1.3 million calls in real time, as the number from the initial scam was tied to an entire network of fraud call centers.

Police were able to trace and record data from the calls, as well as warn potential victims of what was in fact happening, in turn winning valuable time to put together the April 18 sting.

Police say their efforts allowed them to thwart some €10 million in damages in roughly 6,000 cases of attempted fraud.

Over €1 million in assets seized in raids

Of the 21 people arrested, 16 are in detention in foreign jails in the Western Balkans and Lebanon. Nine of those individuals arrested are said to have been in charge of the fraud operation.

Police say they were able to secure electronic evidence, handwritten notes and over €1 million in cash and other assets during the raids.

That evidence is currently being analyzed in hopes of gleaning information "about further possible call centers and more fraudsters."

Baden-Württemberg Interior Minister Strobl said such scams "are particularly perfidious and unscrupulous because they play on peoples' fears and needs." He vowed that authorities would for that reason seek legal recourse "with the utmost severity." 

Fleeced by phone. A true story

js/nm (AFP, dpa)

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