Successful crackdown on phone scammers

Operation Cargo uncovered a large network of phone scammers. Photo: Getty Images
Operation Cargo uncovered a large network of phone scammers. Photo: Getty Images
The Department of Internal Affairs says a recent crackdown on scammers has decreased the number of reported victims by more than 80 percent.

Spokesperson Joe Teo said Operation Cargo uncovered a large network of phone scammers and seized more than $100,000 in equipment, cash and other luxury items in 2023.

"This time last year we noticed a significant amount of scam messaging going around [claiming to be] banking messages, overdue payments, [and] toll payments," Teo said.

The department had worked with police, Customs, CERT (NZ's Computer Emergency Response Team) and telecommunications providers to track down scammers.

"We worked really closely with the telecommunications sector to identify common numbers associated with these scam messages and where these people were located," he said.

"We uncovered a trans-national organised crime syndicate operating in New Zealand coming from the United Kingdom and Australia working at a level of sophistication that we've never really seen before."

The gang was using specialised software to send tens of thousands of scam messages every week.

"We're talking about people's life savings being pulled away from them through these scam messages or social engineering," Teo said.

"Anywhere from as little as $5000, which would be a lot of money for low income families, through to hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Since the operation began in May through to the end of December, Teo said authorities executed 12 search warrants and seized $35,000 in SIM cards and hardware, $10,000 in luxury items such as handbags, and $56,000 in cash.

Those seizures were a fraction of the estimated $3.6 million New Zealanders lost to cyber crime in the final quarter of 2023, but the crackdown did lead to a reduction in the number of scams reported to authorities, Teo said.

"We've seen a [more than] 80 percent reduction, and it keeps going down.

"At the height of it [we received] 53,000 reports a month, and we saw that number starting to decrease quite dramatically to about 4000 a month [today].

"Those numbers are just a sample... the tip of the iceberg, to be honest. In terms of the true scale of what these people are operating at, we're not 100 percent sure."

However, Teo expected new scams to keep popping up and said Operation Cargo would continue.

"What we'd like to think is - working in collaboration with our partnering agencies and industry bodies, with new technology coming on board, new mechanisms - that we'll be able to identify new people sending scam messages out and get onto them a lot quicker," he said.

"This will continue on, we're in the phase where we are now monitoring the situation and keeping a watchful eye on other people who have popped up."