In the early morning of 21 July 2014, 32 European Arrests Warrants were executed in Italy, Poland and Switzerland, against suspects thought to be responsible for more than 250 acts of fraud against the elderly - so-called grandchild trick fraud - and more than 20 residential burglaries.
During yesterday's day of action, 150 police officers were deployed in Italy and over 100 in Poland, along with helicopters and specialist teams. 12 of the suspects were arrested (5 in Italy, 6 in Poland and 1 in Switzerland), whilst the others remain at large. Dozens of house searches were conducted in Italy and Poland resulting in the seizure of real estate, cash, mobile phones and SIM cards, precious stones, luxury watches and jewellery.
The seizure of EUR 1 million in assets has also been executed against the international criminal group, by order of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Novara (Italy), who headed the investigation.
Operation Caro Nipote (Dear Nephew) has been run since the end of 2010 by the Carabinieri in Genova (Italy) who were investigating the case in close cooperation with Europol, Eurojust and the Austrian, German, Polish and Swiss authorities.
In the course of the investigation, which has seen the wiretapping of over 100 phones and the analysis of 1500 itemised billings, nine further cases of fraud were identified which led to the arrest of 10 additional suspects.
Europol provided Italian and Polish authorities with continuous support throughout the investigation by facilitating the development of intelligence, carrying out crime analysis, organising international operational meetings at Europol and deploying staff in Italy and Poland to support the action day.
The operation was preceded by a coordination meeting held in June at Eurojust, which saw the participation of judicial authorities from the countries involved and Europol. During this meeting, the most recent developments in the Italian investigation were presented and discussions took place over the legal aspects of executing simultaneous arrests, judicial requests, seizures and future confiscations. The result of this meeting paved the way for immediate action to tackle the organised criminal group and to deal with their potential future prosecution.
In the words of the Eurojust National Member for Italy, who opened the case at the beginning of 2012: "Once again, positive and constructive cooperation between Eurojust and Europol has allowed us to achieve a very good result in the fight against organised crime. The assistance given to Italian and Polish authorities led to the dismantling of this dangerous criminal network operating against vulnerable citizens. This cooperation shows how effective international and judicial cooperation can be, particularly when using the existing European bodies designed for enhancing such cooperation."
'Grandchild trick fraud' is the name given to a number of slightly varying crimes where criminals defraud the elderly. The most common modus operandi currently used by suspects is when the elderly targets are pre-selected and contacted by phone. Depending on the first words exchanged, the criminal often pretends to be, for example, a grandchild or nephew who is in a particular 'situation'. Using sophisticated psychological skills the offenders get their target to withdraw large amounts of cash and hand it over to an accomplice, who is in fact a member of an organised criminal group, just like the caller.
The elderly targets are most likely to have a 'nest egg', own their home, and/or have excellent credit – all of which make them attractive to fraudsters. They are generally raised to be polite and trusting. Criminal networks exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say 'no' or just hang up the telephone.
Over the years Member States affected by high levels of crimes against the elderly have identified criminal networks that take advantage of the above-mentioned factors and exploit opportunities. However, even though law enforcement agencies have successfully dismantled several criminal groups responsible for such scams, the number of cases remains noteworthy, have transnational dimensions, and represent serious harm to some of the most vulnerable in society.
In addition, it can be very difficult for regional or national police forces to detect the criminal groups due to the groups' extreme mobility. While a local police force is still trying to establish the circumstances of an offence, the group can already be active in a completely different region or country, and the core members of the group are comparatively safe in another country. Added to this, there are a significant number of crimes that are not reported to the police so the number of offences reported to authorities does not reflect the whole picture and the true scale of the problem.
The gap between official police records and the dark (unreported) figures of these crimes is in fact a significant issue, blurring the real figures of crime against the elderly. The reasons behind such a high number of unreported crimes are numerous, for example some elderly are unaware that they have been victims of fraud and therefore do not report the crimes; some victims hold themselves partly or solely to blame and as a consequence are reluctant to report it. Furthermore, some victims feel embarrassed and do not want family members or others to know about their losses. Moreover, some of the victims no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs and in many cases the elderly victims can be poor witnesses.