Inside the cryptocurrency scam: ‘Frank’ explains how European scammers target Australians for millions – ABC News

If you answer your phone and Frank* is on the other end of the line, he’ll keep you talking for as long as he can.

Every moment that ticks by is a chance for Frank to extract more information from you. 

You’re what’s known as a “hot lead” in the world of scammers — a fresh victim. 

And Frank has already done his homework before calling you in Australia.

“We study you, we study the salary you make,” he said. 

“So when we ask about your job, we have already [figured out, for example,] a truck driver makes about 4,000 Australian dollars every month.”

A moody scene of a man in a hoody.

According to Frank, that piece of information is crucial. If he knows how much you earn, he’ll know whether you’re likely to be a valuable “client” going forward and how much you’re willing to invest.

But Frank has a conscience.

After about two years working in two separate European scam “boiler rooms”, he’s chosen to speak to the ABC. 

The ABC has agreed not to reveal his true identity to protect his safety. 

Frank says many people who’ve made an initial investment through him have gone on to lose tens of thousands of dollars. One Australian lost $500,000, he says. 

The companies he has worked for use fraudulent trading platforms. Some are linked to cryptocurrency accounts or offer crypto trading. 

And he’s speaking out because he wants to warn Australians not to pick up the phone to scammers — and tell them how to know if they’re being scammed.

How Frank gets you

It’s likely Frank has your number because you’ve registered your details with a website to learn about cryptocurrency or other online investments.

It might be a site you found on social media. 

Frank will ask you why you’re interested in cryptocurrency and investing. 

“We call this thing the KYC. The KYC is to know your client,” he said. 

A picture of a hand on a keyboard

“I ask the person’s age, experience, and I ask why they made the registration. We get to know what the person wants to tell you.

“I tell the person anything that I can to get them interested.”

Frank is well versed in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. He’ll encourage you to make a small deposit, about $250, to get started.

He’ll then introduce you to a “senior account manager” at his company.

That’s when your “real investing” begins.  

Do you know more about this story? Email [email protected].

Frank will take a cut of that initial $250 and will then get on with the 300 other calls he has to make each day. 

You will be chalked up as another “conversion”, and that first conversation with Frank is most likely your last. 

Scams explode during pandemic

If there’s ever been a perfect storm for scams, it’s now. 

Australians have been socially isolated for the past two years and they’ve been spending more time online.

Bank interest rates are low, meaning many people are looking for new ways to invest their savings. 

“I think people are interested in an alternative way to manage their money and affairs,” Gerard Brody from the Consumer Action Law Centre said.

A man in glasses and a suit looking down the barrel

“They don’t want to deal with banks. They want to break away from governments a little bit as well, I think. 

“But [cryptocurrency] is not regulated by the same protections that apply to other forms of investments.”

What is cryptocurrency?

Nigel Phair from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Institute for Cyber Security said the true cost of scams to the economy was in the billions. 

He’s combed through 20 years of data and has interviewed lawyers, cybersecurity experts, victims and police. 

He believes the amount of cybercrime reported is about “one fifth” of what actually occurs.

“People don’t know where to report or they’re too embarrassed to report or they don’t know what to report,” he said.

Through his research, Mr Phair has estimated there are 300,000 cases of cybercrime a year in Australia, costing the economy an estimated $42 billion. 

Mr Phair said cryptocurrency was now at the forefront of all investment scams.

“We see it ‘mainstreamed’ through social media advertising,” he said.

“And then you also see friends and families that self-validate some of the scams and hook each other into it that way.

‘I talk to 20 Australians a day’

At an undisclosed location in Europe, Frank unloads the details of the scam operations he has worked inside. 

His identity is concealed because the scam centres are run by multinational organised crime rings. 

A dark image showing a man

“These people that are the bosses of these companies, they are very high people in the country here,” Frank said. 

He said there were huge risks involved in him speaking to the media. 

“They are protected by gangs driving in bulletproof cars and everything, and my life is at stake from that,” he said. 

A text message trying to get recruits

“[But I want to speak out because] I’m trying to get back some things that I did wrong, to people that I’ve hurt.”

The job advertisements attempting to recruit potential scammers aren’t remarkable, but they lure in workers from all over the world. 

Frank said many were college graduates from across the world looking for work.

Like Frank, they are mostly educated and fluent in multiple languages.

Frank was unemployed before he was told by a friend to move from his home country and try working at a finance company in eastern Europe.

At first, he said, it wasn’t obvious he was working for a company involved in scams.

After five days of training, the calling began.

Security is tight.

Employees can be asked to take a polygraph test to ensure they’re not leaking information from inside the operation. 

“You are not supposed to tell anybody that you’re working in financial markets,” Frank said. 

“Any time there is a bust — and I’ve been in one busted office before — there is a shutdown system on every computer.”

Frank said Australians were extremely interested in bitcoin, and it was easy to find ways to convince them to make an initial investment. 

“I personally talk to about 20 Australian people in a day and maybe five of them will make a deposit at the same time,” he said.

For younger people, he’ll talk about using the profits from their investments for clothes, overseas trips or buying a car. 

For people over 50, it’s always about having enough money for retirement. 

“You’re giving them fake promises, and they believe you because whatever I’m going to tell you is something they want to hear,” he said. 

German police busting cybercrime

Criminal syndicates are notoriously difficult to investigate because they operate across borders. 

But one police force in southern Germany is chalking up arrests. 

Nino Goldbeck is the public prosecutor in Germany’s Bavarian Central Office for the Prosecution of Cybercrime. 

A German man near a sign

“The whole world is talking about bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies,” he said.  

“This crypto hype makes it all the easier for the perpetrators to defraud people.”

Dismayed at the number of scam victims police were seeing, in 2018 Mr Goldbeck’s police department appointed four prosecutors to specifically focus on cybercrime. 

“It’s very important that you have specific groups of investigators with specific knowledge in tracing the money flow,” he said.

He said one of the biggest challenges was the cross-border nature of the work. 

Despite the challenges, the Bavarian Police Department has been involved in dozens of arrests and is extraditing criminals to face trial. 

the message on computer

Along with the German victims, he said he’d seen Australian cases too. 

“We have around 20 or 30 people in pre-trial detention,” he said. 

“Some are here in Germany already. Others are in foreign countries and we are waiting for them. 

“The main challenge is the fact that we are combating very well organised criminal groups with smart masterminds operating a very sophisticated fraud scheme.”

Australian police to beef up resources

The Australian Federal Police is expanding its overseas operations, including by putting liaison officers in Africa, eastern Europe and the US. 

Australian Federal Police (AFP) Cybercrime Operations Commander Chris Goldsmid said the government was putting millions of dollars towards combating cybercrime. 

A police offcier in a dark room

“A lot of this activity does originate from offshore, which is why we’re doing things like expanding our cybercrime liaison network offshore so that we can take the fight to criminals offshore,” he said. 

“We’re currently building our capability and capacity to investigate and deal with cryptocurrency-related criminal activity.”

But Mr Phair from UNSW said there had been 20 years of inaction on cybercrime in Australia.

He said there was still not enough money being put into resourcing police. 

A middle aged man in a suit

“All policing needs a lot more resources and investigators to deal with this volume of crime,” he said. 

“We’re just not seeing those policing resources being dedicated to a public place where we spend all of our day.”

‘Hang up’

Frank said, looking back, he felt deeply uneasy seeing people lose a lot of money. 

By disclosing how the scams operate, he hopes he can help people. 

“If you receive a call and they’re telling you you can make money, say ‘no thanks’ and hang up,” he said. 

“You cannot make money with any broker who is calling on the phone.”

Things to look out for

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s information about scams can be found on the Scamwatch website. Here are some warning signs to look out for: 

Protect yourself