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Gangs of cybercriminals are expanding across Africa, investigators say

Police and investigators fear organized gangs of fraudsters are expanding across sub-Saharan Africa, exploiting new opportunities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis to make huge sums with little risk of being caught. The growth will have a direct impact on the rest of the world, where many victims of “hugely lucrative” fraud live, senior police officials have said.

Experts attribute the surge in cybercrime in Africa to rapid growth of internet use at a time when police forces and criminal justice systems have been weakened by the economic consequences of a series of major challenges.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalization around the world, but as life has shifted increasingly online, cybercriminals have exploited the opportunity to attack vital digital infrastructure,” said Prof Landry Signe, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a recent report on the problem. “States across Africa have emerged as a favorite target of cybercriminals, with costly consequences.”

Interpol have described online scams such as banking and credit card fraud as the most prevalent and pressing cyberthreat in Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a sustained increase in the volume of cyber-attacks, including more than twice as many targeting online banking platforms, analysts at the organization have said.

A major operation earlier this month coordinated by Interpol in 14 countries underlined the scale of the threat from cybercrime on the continent and beyond. Police arrested more than 70 alleged fraudsters linked to a Nigerian criminal network known as Black Axe in South Africa, Nigeria and Ivory Coast – as well as in Europe, the Middle East, south-east Asia and the US.

Almost 50 properties were searched and about $1m intercepted in bank accounts. A residential property, three cars, tens of thousands in cash and 12,000 sim cards were seized.

“It is way wider and broader than these 14 countries. We are dealing with a highly organized international network. These guys are not opportunists … We’re mapping them out around the world,” said Rory Corcoran, the acting head of Interpol’s new Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre.

The recent raids across Africa targeted alleged members of Nigeria’s infamous Black Axe gang, which began as a student movement in Benin City in the 1970s but has since evolved into a global criminal network that specializes in fraud. A regional hub in South Africa was reportedly officially recognized by the Black Axe leadership in 2013, according to US legal documents viewed by the Guardian.

The trail leading to the arrests last month began in Ireland, when local police officers recovered phones and other devices belonging to fraudsters linked to Black Axe. Investigators recognised vocabulary typical of the group and were able to trace links back to west Africa.

A former South African criminal intelligence official said the impact of operations such as the arrests earlier this month should not be exaggerated, however.

“There may be a decrease in activity for a time, but does the organisation stop? Not really. They run these things really effectively and there are work arounds. You get a lot of publicity for law enforcement but really it’s little more than a speed bump for the criminals,” the official said.

Corcoran said arrests had a significant disruptive effect. Recently introduced improvements to coordination and communication between the banking sector and local police forces also allowed much more rapid tracking, seizure and restitution of stolen funds.

More than $120m has been seized this year, denying fraudsters such as Black Axe capital that could be reinvested in other forms of crime, such as forcing young west African women into sex work in Europe, buying weapons or the growing international traffic in methamphetamines.

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