Councilor busts voice phisherSeo Ho-young, a member of the Daegu Metropolitan Council, got lucky this month.
He nabbed a voice phishing swindler by working with police to ambush a man who tried to fraudulently collect millions of won from him while posing as a financial auditor.
Seo was on his way to an event in Daegu around 3:40 p.m. on Feb. 1 when he received a call.
“This is a prosecutor from the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office speaking,” a man on the other side of the phone said. “Are you Mr. Seo Ho-young?”
The man told Seo that a gang in Gyeonggi created bank accounts using Seo’s name and personal information and committed financial crimes that inflicted around 70 million won ($62,180) in damages.
The man then texted Seo what seemed to be an official notice issued by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. It ordered Seo to prove that he was a victim and did not work with the gang on the scheme.
“In order to prove their innocence, the contacted person must share details to their bank accounts with the authorities,” the notice read. “Should the person speak of this matter to a third person [family, spouse, colleague, all acquaintances] then all their assets will be seized according to the Financial Transaction Act Article 39.”
While on the phone with the man - who told Seo he might be considered a suspect should he hang up since he could then contact his alleged gang associates - Seo decided to check the facts of the matter with an acquaintance in the prosecution.
Seo texted the notice to his acquaintance.
“This is a fake,” read the response. “The call is likely a phishing scam from China.”
Seo debated whether to hang up and move on. But the fact that the swindlers were able to create a fake notice from the prosecutors’ office, which may seem legitimate to a panicking victim, bothered him.
So he decided to go along with the scam, but asked the prosecutor to contact the police to see if they could work together to catch a swindler in person.
“The gang may try to continue to use your account illegally, and while they have not touched your money yet, they may do so in the future,” the swindler told Seo over the phone. “You must withdraw the remaining 12 million won from your account and hand it over to an employee of the Financial Supervisory Service.”
When Seo withdrew the money, the swindler told Seo to send him a photo of the cash.
The swindler told him to meet a Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) employee in Daejeon and ordered Seo to take a train to Daejeon Station.
Seo agreed. He deposited the money back in his bank and then met up with police officers at Dongdaegu Station, who were contacted by Seo’s acquaintance.
Seo and the swindler hung up at that point. But Seo had to text the person a photo of his train ticket.
The group traveled to Daejeon Station. Precisely when he arrived at the station, Seo was contacted by the swindler. He told Seo to meet the FSS employee in front of a hospital in Daejeon.
Seo and the police traveled together to the hospital. He then approached the hospital alone, with nearby officers on standby.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” said Seo. “I stuffed a book down my shirt in front of my stomach in case the man may be armed.”
He called a phone number given by the swindler in front of the hospital.
A man in the vicinity picked up the phone.
“That’s him!” Seo shouted, at which point police officers appeared and ambushed the man, who is now being investigated by the authorities.
“I was worried that it may not go well,” Seo said, “but I am glad we caught a member of the scammers’ group.”
Not all victims of voice phishing scams are so lucky: Most swindlers just ask victims to wire money directly to them, leaving no chance to catch a criminal in person, like Seo did.
In the first 10 months of last year, a total of 334 billion won were swindled from people by voice phishers. The total damage in 2017 was 243.1 billion won and 192.4 billion won in 2016.
The swindlers operate large call centers usually located outside of Korea in such countries as China, the Philippines, Cambodia or Vietnam.
Large voice phishing organizations rent entire buildings to use as cell centers.
Operators work, eat and sleep under the careful surveillance of members of the organization. Four people typically work together: Three voice phishers on the phones and one more senior member of the organization managing them.
Pretending to be a prosecutor is a classic scam these swindlers use, and not everyone has a prosecutor acquaintance like Seo.
Victims typically receive a call from a swindler pretending to be a prosecutor who threatens to charge the victim with a crime and seize their assets should they not cooperate with their directions.
Like in Seo’s case, they keep the victim on the phone and threaten them so they don’t tell anyone else about the situation.
If victims try to hang up and call the authorities, the scams have evolved so much that the swindlers may have already hacked into their phones. They are then able to reroute the victims’ calls to their own call centers and pretend to be the police or the bank involved.
They assure the victim they should transfer money, or that they should withdraw money and meet an FSS employee at a designated location.
In order to prevent additional scams, financial authorities in Korea have made it impossible for bank account owners to withdraw transferred money within 30 minutes of the transfer. This gives victims time to calm down, alert authorities to the scam and possibly save their money.
But the swindlers know this as well, and have come up with ruses to keep victims on the phone for 30 minutes after the transfer.
BY BAEK KYUNG-SEO, ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]