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The Mafia Finds a New Frontier for Crime: the Internet

·6-min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It’s got all the makings of a classic Italian mob movie—mobsters running a criminal ring from an island, drug trafficking, kidnapping, homicides, 10 million euros, dozens of raids, and 106 arrests.

There’s just one wrinkle: It was mostly happening online.

After a year-long investigation, European law enforcement busted criminals with links to Italian Mafia groups for laundering 10 million euros through a flurry of hacking operations and violent coercion last year across Italy, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Ireland, and the U.K.

Spanish police, who worked on the takedown operation, say some of the individuals are allegedly linked to the Casamonica clan—a violent crime family based out of Rome that is known for drug trafficking—which was determined to be Mafia in court earlier this week. The individuals are also linked with the Camorra napolitana, Nuvoletta, and Sacra Corona Unita clans, according to the police.

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The criminals allegedly coordinated with computer experts to run spearphishing emails that duped victims into sending money to bank accounts. After the mobsters received the ill-gotten gains, they laundered the currency through front companies, money mules, and cryptocurrency assets, according to Spanish police.

“This large criminal network was very well organised in a pyramid structure, which included different specialised areas and roles,” Europol said in a statement earlier this week.

The gangsters and accomplices also used “vishing,” or voice phishing, in which criminals trick victims over the phone into coughing up personal information such as passwords or credit card details. And they also used SIM-swapping schemes, in which criminals convince phone service providers to transfer victims’ phone numbers to another device to access accounts.

In the raid—which law enforcement officials code-named “Fontana-Almabahia”—Europol and the Italian and Spanish national police forces searched 16 houses, froze 118 bank accounts, and made 106 arrests in all.

Although Italian mobsters are the OG organized crime bosses, cybercrime and hacking is traditionally associated with Russian-speaking criminals, Nigerian gangs, or teams working for North Korea’s government.

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The recent spate of arrests of individuals in Italy and Spain, however, shows Italian Mafia criminals squarely entering the 21st century of money laundering and organized crime, weaving together tried-and-true tactics of coercive money laundering schemes into the cyber realm.

In addition to these more modern electronic crimes, the arrested individuals were also accused of more traditional and heinous crimes, such as kidnapping, assault, coercion, robbery with violence and force, illegal possession of weapons, and two counts of homicides.

In one case, the mobsters kidnapped a woman, held her at gunpoint, took her to an ATM, and forced her to hand over all her money, according to Spanish police.

These kinds of overlaps between cybercrimes and physical law-breaking are more common than one might think, Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, told The Daily Beast.

“There is a common misconception about cybercrime—namely that it happens only online. Instead there is an important, offline dimension, where people with some cyber expertise meet traditional organized crime, like in this story,” Varese, who has studied and written on organized crime extensively, told The Daily Beast. “In this story, it is notable that there were at least two murders and the use of violence.”

This isn’t the first time criminals with links to Italian Mafia crime families have been caught using hacking and conducting credit card schemes. In 2015, European law enforcement wrapped up a Sicily-based crime ring with links to la Cosa Nostra that had worked with hackers in Russia, Ukraine, and Romania to steal credit card information, mostly from U.S. citizens, according to an Italian police alert from the time.

‘Ndragheta, one of the most powerful Italian mob families in Europe, has links with a company, eSurv, that produced spyware that, while created to target criminal suspects and surveil their communications, has been abused to surveil innocent Italians’ encrypted chats, microphones, and cameras, according to Bloomberg.

And although the police specified the 106 arrested in this most recent case were working for the Casamonica, Camorra napolitana, Nuvoletta, and Sacra Corona Unita clans, the news comes as Italian Mafia groups are increasingly coalescing and working together on various criminal operations, according to the Italian National Anti-Mafia and Counter-Terrorism Public Prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho.

“This distinction of Cosa Nostra, ’Ndrangheta, Camorra as different and separate criminal entities hardly corresponds to reality anymore," Cafiero De Raho said earlier this year in an interview, which he said could point to mobs increasingly operating as one criminal syndicate.

In Europol’s announcement about the raids, the police refer to the hackers and criminals as “an organised crime group,” and not multiple groups.

But even if the groups themselves are coalescing—a possibility that Varese finds implausible—the criminals themselves are likely distinct from members of Italian Mafia clans.

"Everything I’ve seen points to a very clear division of labor. The traditional Mafia… they would be separate,” Varese told The Daily Beast. “There would be someone doing the online fraud—maybe the [Mafia] would be clients, they would benefit from it, use them to launder their money.”

Italian Mafia groups’ turn to cybercrime may not be all that surprising, and could represent a lucrative channel for funding mobster business moving forward. Law enforcement operations have been making progress against various Italian Mafia groups in recent years, and mobsters have been increasingly wary of getting caught red-handed.

In turn, these members of organized crime have increasingly resorted to cybercrime, cryptocurrencies, and the dark web as a way to fly under the radar, Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate said in a report last month.

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But the apparent willingness of Italian crime families to dip their toes in organized cybercrime in recent years doesn’t mean Italian organized crime syndicates are giving up their old, violent ways. Italians still frequently turn to the Mafia to settle debts and competition and engage in fraud, according to the BBC. Mafiosos have also recently worked to take advantage of the economic difficulties of their fellow Italians during the pandemic and offered food and other support as COVID-19 ravaged the country—in a likely act meant to foster future favors and breed whole towns of indebted neighbors.

And any moves to rely more on cyber-operations might be stunted by Italian Mafia’s tendency towards tradition and reliability, Varese said.

“These are very traditional people and they would find it a jump to entrust their hard-earned money to someone who tells them something [hard to understand],” Varese said. “The moment it starts to become… bitcoin… they start to think, how do I know the guy isn’t going to cheat me?”

Imagine you entrust all your savings to a guy who does something you don’t understand,” Varese continued. “And imagine the guy comes back to you and he says, ‘Sorry, lost the money…’ That’s why you want somebody you can trust, i.e. local, so you can kill him or kill all his family. Money laundering can only be sophisticated up to a point.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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