193 individuals suspected of traveling with airline tickets bought using stolen, compromised or fake credit card details have been detained in a major international law enforcement operation targeting airline fraudsters. 43 countries, 75 airlines and 8 online travel agencies were involved in this global operation which took place at 189 airports across the world from 10-15 October 2016.
The airline industry is estimated to lose over one billion dollars per year as a result of the fraudulent online purchases of flight tickets. Fraudulent online transactions are highly lucrative for organised crime and are often purchased to facilitate more serious criminal activities including illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings, drug smuggling and terrorism.
The fifth Global Airport Action Day was organised through coordination centres at Europol in The Hague, INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore and Ameripol in Bogota and was supported by Canadian and US law enforcement agencies. Representatives from airlines, online travel agencies, payment card companies, Perseuss and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) worked together with experts from Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) to identify suspicious transactions and provide confirmation to law enforcement officers deployed in the airports. Eurojust assisted throughout the action week, together with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) which deployed officers to 20 airports, assisting in the detection of identity fraud, fake documents and irregular migration.
For the first time, this global operation lasted for 5 consecutive days. Law enforcement is now tackling this international phenomenon on a daily basis in close cooperation with the private sector. This has enhanced the trust between all involved parties and will continue to inflict damage to the criminals involved in airline ticket fraud.
During the operation, 350 suspicious transactions were reported. As a result, 193 people were detained, denied boarding, questioned by police and charged criminally. Investigations are ongoing. Several people were caught trying to traffic drugs from Latin America to Europe, frequently flying back and forth using fraudulently purchased tickets.
Crime-as-a-Service, the recent trend in all forms of serious organised crime, has now also appeared in the travel sector. Law enforcement has targeted fake online travel agencies, specialising in purchasing airline tickets with stolen or fake credit card details for other criminals, providing them a service. One criminal enterprise offered financial services, fraudulently purchased tickets and fake documents. During the action several bookings for different destinations were linked to the same criminal organisation. In addition, passengers should take care when purchasing airline tickets online and be cautious of deals that are too good to be true.
Know the crime: airline ticket fraud
The use of compromised credit card details is an increasingly high volume crime, with tens of thousands of criminal complaints in many EU countries. An increase in Card-Not-Present (CNP) fraud is apparent across almost all sectors; the purchases of physical goods, airline tickets, car rentals and accommodation with compromised cards has seen a significant increase throughout the EU Airline companies are among the most affected by CNP fraud.
Europol’s Director Rob Wainwright says: “We cannot allow anyone, in particular serious criminals and terrorists, to travel around the world anonymously and to endanger others. The digital underground is underpinned by a mature Crime-as-a-Service model which continues to provide tools and services to people with criminal motivation. Together with our private partners we need to further extend these successful initiatives targeting fraud in the airline industry, fighting them on a daily basis, to make life as hard as possible for criminals.”
“Airline ticket fraud threatens security worldwide by potentially facilitating the international travel of criminals and terrorists. Global Airport Action Day is therefore an important collaborative initiative in disrupting the transnational organized criminal networks behind fraudulent airline ticket purchases and other criminal activities. It also highlights the role of cooperation between law enforcement and private industry partners,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
“Once again Europol has supported the airline industry in our fight against online fraud. By organizing an operation involving airlines, online travel agencies, card schemes, law enforcement representatives and others Europol has helped the industry on a global scale. The findings of this operation have shown that there is more to online fraud than just financial losses. The airlines are looking for continued cooperation with all parties of this Action”, comments Meta Backman, Chair of the European Airline Fraud Prevention Group.
Aleks Popovich, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Financial and Distribution Services, states: "Fraud against the airline industry remains a serious issue and IATA will continue to be at the forefront of efforts through its Industry Fraud Prevention strategy and programme of activities. The aim is to prevent fraud and reduce its impact on airlines and passengers. Global Days of Action tackling ticket fraud have become an extremely important part of these efforts. IATA is once again proud to partner with Europol and Airlines, leading to a very successful outcome. We look forward to future cooperation in planning and executing these global operations.”
This global operation against airline fraudsters is part of Operation Ciconia Alba, the third EU-wide Joint Action Days taking place within the EU Policy Cycle for organised and serious international crime. The intelligence-led operational actions taking place in the framework of this operation cover several crime areas whilst focusing on key criminal hotspots and key criminal infrastructure in the EU and beyond.