A government worker and his police officer son are two victims of a surge in telco frauds and phishing emails purporting to be from companies and banks.
The prevalence of a scam in which fraudsters claim to be from telecommunications company Spark led to police issuing a warning yesterday after hundreds of thousands of dollars has reportedly been lost.
Detective Sergeant Kevin Blackman of the Auckland City Police's financial crime unit said that con also involves callers claiming to be from the police, as the scammers attempt to gain access to innocent people's bank accounts.
The financial crime unit have been running an investigation to counter such rackets, code-named Operation Blowfish, the Herald can reveal.
One victim of such a swindle was a government worker, who has asked not to be named when sharing his story with the Herald.
He recalled feeling violated and shame after discovering the scammers had nearly picked his accounts clean.
"While I was saying goodbye to my wife in our carport I received a text message from our son inquiring about the $12,000 that had been withdrawn from our joint BNZ bank account," he said.
"I raced upstairs, logged onto our computer and into the BNZ portal and discovered that $12,000 had certainly been withdrawn without authority . . . I felt sick, stressed, anxious, disempowered, violated and destabilised."
He then turned his mind back to what, in hindsight, was a suspicious email.
"Clearly the person or persons who perpetrated this offence are very clever with IT," he said.
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"The screen resolutions were high and the wording was free of errors and the website page that I clicked on looked very genuine.
"I was directed to the website page by an email that appeared as though it was genuinely from the BNZ. It is a pity that they couldn't apply their skills for the benefit of our society rather than for a criminal activity and greed."
But the government worker, who said he spent years working for and saving money for his family, discovered the fraud was far worse than initially thought after visiting a BNZ branch.
In just a short time span some $45,600 had now been lifted from the joint accounts he shares with his son, a police officer.
"The daily working account was stripped, meaning that outstanding bills could not be paid with the possibility of services such as power and the telephone being disconnected and defaulting on mortgage payments and interest possibly incurring penalties," the government worker said.
"I was unable to sleep, I was distraught, depressed and in despair."
Despite the bank later informing him that his funds would be recovered he said he was unable to feel a sense of relief.
"The shame, depression, despair and anxiety remained with me and still does . . . My ability to trust people is significantly diminished."
Several have been arrested in recent months and placed before the courts as part of Operation Blowfish.
Satbir Singh, 31, was one such money mule caught by police.
He was sentenced to 15 months' prison in the Auckland District Court on eight charges of money laundering.
Some $62,900 had been illegally accessed from his victim's bank accounts.
Singh also made a further attempt to withdraw $14,100 from an account before it was declined.
In a letter of remorse, however, Singh said he was pressured into the offending by those operating the syndicate.
Money mules, like Singh, are often recruited to transfer money and the proceeds of crime between banks and accounts to keep the hands clean of architects of the criminal groups.
At his sentencing, the court heard, complaints to police from banks and telecommunication companies over recent years has involved at least $20 million.
Singh will be deported to India at the conclusion of this jail term.
Fellow money mule Ranjit Sandhu, 25, was also caught laundering money and was sentenced earlier this year to eight months' imprisonment.
He was also served with a deportation notice.
At Sandhu's sentencing in the Auckland District Court, it was revealed that the fraud began early last year as New Zealand banks and telcos were targeted by a sophisticated scam.
"The overall scheme was very serious," Judge Robert Ronayne said.
Tens of thousands of dollars were transferred through mule accounts with some $113,350 being lost by three victims as a result of offending linked to Sandhu alone.
Others arrested as part of Operation Blowfish remain before the courts.
Last month, police investigating reports of the Spark scam were able to intercept two separate packages in Auckland containing a total of $25,000.
One of the two victims was an 84-year-old woman, whose money was identified and intercepted by police before being returned.
Further police inquiries revealed both victims had sent further packages containing large amounts of money, which is yet to be recovered.
Many of the victims are vulnerable, older members of our community who are less technologically minded, Blackman said.
Some have also been asked to send money to different addresses in Auckland, as well as overseas locations including Spain, Japan and Australia.
Police believe the scammers operate overseas but understand people in New Zealand may be assisting with sending money offshore.
Reports from banks have also been received by police, which Blackman said indicated potentially hundreds of victims over the past few months around the country.
The detective also warned people could face prosecution if they engage with the scammers.
"If you are asked to receive money from a stranger, you are likely to be engaging in money laundering," he said.
"There is no legitimate reason for a stranger to need to put money into your account. If you are ever asked, do not accept any money and contact police."
How to keep safe from scams
• Never give your personal details over the phone or in an email to a stranger.
• If you think a call may be suspicious, hang up immediately and do not engage with the caller.
• Google the suspicious phone number or email address or check with reliable sources such as the White Pages to confirm its validity.
• Have conversations with your parents and grandparents about such scams, inform your elderly or vulnerable neighbours.
• If in doubt do not pay the money.
• Anyone who believes they are a victim of a scam should contact police immediately.