Police have carried out more than 20 raids across Europe in connection with an international cryptocurrency fraud scheme that could have netted thieves hundreds of millions of euros.
More than 260 people have been questioned over the scam which mainly targeted German citizens, defrauding them of €2 million ($2.1 million).
Europe's crime agency Europol said the fraud stretched as far as Australia and Canada and the true financial loss figure is expected to be far higher.
Criminals used social media networks to advertise fake cryptocurrency schemes and ran call centres across Eastern Europe.
“The suspects used advertisements on social networks to lure victims to websites covertly operated by the criminals, which offered seemingly exceptional investment opportunities in cryptocurrencies,” Europol claimed.
“The victims, mainly from Germany, would first invest low, three-digit sums. Fake price hikes leading to supposedly lucrative profits for investors then persuaded them to make transfers of higher amounts.
“Currently, it is estimated that the financial damage to German victims is over €2 million, while other countries — such as Switzerland, Australia and Canada — also have victims.
Europol said that the investigation suggests that the number of unreported cases is likely to be “much higher”.
“This would mean that the illegal gains generated by the criminal groups, with at least four call centres in eastern Europe, may be in the hundreds of millions of euros,” said the agency.
Four call centres and 18 places were searched, and over 250 workplaces were identified in Serbia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Germany.
Europol said that 14 people have been arrested in Serbia and one in Germany.
More than 150 computers, various electronic equipment, three cars, two luxury apartments and $1 million in cryptocurrencies and €50,000 in cash have been seized.
“The number of victims identified are almost certainly only be the tip of the iceberg,” said Eurojust, the EU agency that deals with judicial co-operation in criminal matters between member states.
“During investigations into the organised crime group, which ran the fraudulent call centre scheme, high volumes of financial transactions were detected.
“The OCG operated the call centres from Serbia and used a technological infrastructure in Bulgaria to run the scheme.
“Allegedly, Cyprus was the base for laundering the illegal proceedings.”
More than 30 police officers from Germany took part in the investigations in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Serbia.
Investigations into the online scam were launched in 2021 by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Stuttgart in south-west Germany and the State Office of Criminal Investigations of Baden-Wurttemberg.