Updated at 1.30pm
A 17-year-old hacker has been arrested in Malta following an international investigation led by Europol into a series of 'SIM swapping' attacks targeting high-profile victims in the US.
Ten hackers were arrested, eight of them on Monday while the other two members of the criminal gang (one in Malta, the other in Belgium) had been arrested earlier.
The identity of the hacker arrested in Malta is not yet known.
According to a Europol statement, the attacks orchestrated by the criminal gang targeted “thousands of victims throughout 2020”, including famous internet influencers, sport stars, musicians and their families.
Europol did not identify the victims.
“The criminals are believed to have stolen from them over $100 million in cryptocurrencies after illegally gaining access to their phones.
“This international sweep follows a year-long investigation jointly conducted by law enforcement authorities from the UK, US, Belgium, Malta and Canada, with international activity coordinated by Europol,” the EU crime agency said.
The investigation had kicked off in the spring of 2020 and uncovered how a network of a dozen criminals worked together to access the victims’ phone numbers.
In a statement later on Thursday, the police said it became involved in the investigation in November 2019 when the Cyber Crime unit received information that a Maltese person had illegally accessed the Instagram profile of "several celebrities". He then started threatening his victims, the police said.
Following a search at the 17-year-old's residence, the police confiscated electronic devices, luxury clothing and other devices allegedly bought using stolen credit-cards.
Investigations related to the Maltese hacker are ongoing and charges have not been issued pending more information on his role in the criminal gang.
Inspector Timothy Zammit from the Cyber Crime unit said successful investigations such as this are a result of the hard work and collaboration with other countries. He said this was possible because of the trust the Maltese police enjoyed.
What is SIM swapping?
The SIM card is a small plastic chip that tells a device which network to connect to, and which phone number to use.
Hackers trick a phone company into deactivating a working SIM and transferring its functions to one controlled by the hackers.
They would then take control of their apps or accounts by changing the passwords.
This allowed them to steal money, cryptocurrencies and personal information, including contacts synced with online accounts. They also hijacked social media accounts to post content and send messages masquerading as the victim, Europol said.
The crime is known as 'SIM swapping' and has been identified as a key trend that is on the rise.
Who took part in the investigation?
The investigation involved multiple police and crime agencies including:
In the UK: National Crime Agency
In the US: US Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, Santa Clara REACT;
In Belgium: Federal Police; Police Zone RIHO;
In Malta: Malta Police Force;
In Canada: Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force, Hamilton Police Service, Toronto Police Service, Edmonton Police Service.
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