Investigation

Experts warn of ‘epidemic’ of bugging devices used by stalkers

More funding and legal powers are needed for police to stop a surge of stalkers using eavesdropping devices to spy on victims, experts have warned.

By James Hockaday for Metro.co.uk

 

 

Firms paid to detect the bugs say they’re finding more and more of the devices which are readily available on online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay.

Jack Lazzereschi, Technical Director of bug sweeping company Shapestones, says cases of stalking and victims being blackmailed with intimate footage shot in secret has doubled in the past two years.

He told Metro.co.uk: ‘The police want to do something about it, they try to, but usually they don’t have the legal power or the resources to investigate.

‘For us it’s a problem. We try to protect the client, we want to assure that somebody has been protected.’

 

People are paying as little as £15 for listening devices and spy cameras hidden inside desk lamps, wall sockets, phone charger cables, USB sticks and picture frames.

Users insert a sim card into a hidden slot and call a number to listen in on their unwitting targets.

People using hidden cameras can watch what’s happening using an apps on their phones.

Jack says the devices are so effective, cheap and hard to trace to their users, law enforcement prefer using them over expensive old-school devices.

Although every case is different, in situations where homeowners plant devices in their own properties, Jack says there’s usually a legal ‘grey area’ to avoid prosecution.

 

The devices themselves aren’t illegal and they are usually marketed for legitimate purposes like protection, making it difficult for cops to investigate.

There is no suggestion online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon are breaking the law by selling them.

But in some instances, images of women in their underwear have been used in listings – implying more sinister uses for the devices.

Even in cases when people are more clearly breaking the law, Jack says it’s unlikely perpetrators will be brought to justice as overstretched police will prioritise resources to stop violent crime.

Jack’s says around 60 per cent of his firm’s non-corporate cases cases involve stalking or blackmail.

He says it’s become an ‘epidemic’ over the past couple of years with the gadgets more readily available than ever before.

Victims are often filmed naked or having sex and threatened with the threat of footage being put online and in the worst cases children are also recorded.

Jack says UK law is woefully unprepared to deal with these devices compared to countries in the Asian-Pacific region.

In South Korea authorities have cracked down on a scourge of perverts planting cameras in public toilets.

James Williams, director of bug sweepers QCC Global says snooping devices used to be the preserve of people with deep pockets and technological know-how.

He said: ‘It’s gone from that to really being at a place where anybody can just buy a device from the internet.

 

‘Anything you can possibly think of you can buy with a bug built into it. I would say they’re getting used increasingly across the board.’

Suky Bhaker, Acting CEO of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the National Stalking Helpline, warned using these gadgets could be a prelude to physical violence.

She said: ‘We know that stalking and coercive control are extremely dangerous and can cause huge harm to the victim, both in terms of their psychological wellbeing and the potential for escalation to physical violence or even murder.

‘The use of surveillance devices or spyware apps by stalkers, must be seen in the context of a pattern of obsessive, fixated behaviour which aims at controlling and monitoring the victim.

 

She added: ‘There should be clarity for police forces that the use of surveillance equipment by stalkers to monitor their victim’s location or communications is a sign that serious and dangerous abuse may be present or imminent.’

‘All cases of stalking or coercive control should be taken seriously and investigated when reported to police.’

The charity is calling for all police forces across the country to train staff in this area.

Earlier this month a policeman known only by his surname Mills was barred from the profession for life for repeatedly dismissing pleas for help from 19-year-old Shana Grice who was eventually murdered by her stalker ex-boyfriend Michel Lane.

 

A spokesman for eBay said: ‘The listing of mini cameras on eBay is permitted for legitimate items like baby monitors or doorbell cameras.

‘However, items intended to be used as spying devices are banned from eBay’s UK platform in accordance with the law and our policy.

‘We have filters in place to block prohibited items, and all the items flagged by Metro have now been removed.’

Amazon declined to comment.

Boiler room raid uncovered hidden documents and spy cameras

Six jailed for £2.8m fraud following the City watchdog’s Operation Tidworth

By Hannah Murphy

They might be called “boiler room scams”, but one of the biggest examples of organized investment fraud in the UK took place inside an office building in east London. Back in March 2014, staff from the UK’s financial watchdog launched a search operation at the Docklands Business Centre. Several floors up, Jeannine Lewis, 50, was caught on CCTV sweeping up a stack of glossy brochures and standing on a table to remove a ceiling tile to store the documents in the roof. Minutes later, she did this again — though this time moving a large black computer system. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, Ms. Lewis was hiding evidence from authorities concerning a sprawling London-based boiler room scam that cost 170 unsuspecting victims a total of £2.8m. The FCA, which has now brought its second-largest criminal prosecution to date against Ms. Lewis and five others for the scam, had made an unannounced visit to the office, catching the defendants off guard. Ms. Lewis claimed at Southwark Crown Court that she had merely been adhering to her company’s clean desk policy. But the group has now been found guilty of charges including fraud, money laundering and perverting the course of justice. In a coup for a regulator keen to shake off accusations of being too “soft”, sentencing on Friday confirmed the defendants would be jailed for a total of nearly 29 years. Dubbed Operation Tidworth by the FCA, the case shines a harsh spotlight on the shady world of boiler rooms— unauthorized brokerages that use cold calling and other high-pressure sales tactics to push worthless or overpriced investments to members of the public. The court heard that the defendants set up five different boiler room operations between July 2010 and April 2014 to persuade people to invest in a company that owned land on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Investors were told the land — and therefore the company’s shares — would increase in value to give returns of as much as 228 percent, thanks to the proposed development of a prestigious golf course nearby. However, investors never saw their money again. Instead, it funded the lavish lifestyle of the group’s ringleader, former bouncer Michael Nascimento. According to prosecutors, the 41-year-old spent £23,000 on VIP Arsenal football club season tickets and £46,000 a year renting a six-bedroom property. Mr. Nascimento was portrayed by prosecutors as paranoid and controlling. Ironically, it was he who installed the CCTV cameras — that captured Ms. Lewis, his personal assistant, stowing away the documents and computer hardware — in order to secretly monitor his staff.

On Friday, he was the last of the group to be sentenced, receiving 11 years. On the same day, he and his chief salesman Charanjit Sandhu, 28, were also sentenced in another case involving the mis-selling of £2.4m of carbon credits to 130 victims. Here, the court heard, the proceeds were used to buy items such as an Aston Martin and a Rolex. At an earlier hearing, the court found the defendants guilty of offenses of conspiracy to defraud, fraud, money laundering and perverting the course of justice, as well as breaches of markets legislation.

Charanjit Sandhu was sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment. Hugh Edwards, 36, and Stuart Rea, 50, who both recruited sales brokers, were sentenced to three years and nine months each. Jeannine Lewis, Mr. Nascimento’s personal assistant, received two and a half years while Ryan Parker, 25, described as the “office dogsbody”, was jailed for two years. Operation Tidworth has been presented as a win for the FCA, which has recently sought to flex its muscles as an investigator and prosecutor of financial crime. As part of its prosecution, the watchdog seized more than 100 computers, trawled through 4m documents and analyzed 65 bank accounts — both in the UK and overseas. In terms of the amount of evidence sifted through by investigators, the case comes second only to the sprawling insider dealer case named Operation Tabernula. Indeed, Mr. Nascimento and his associates went to great lengths to deceive their victims. In convincing investment brochures seized by the FCA, one of the boiler room companies boasted of being “one of the UK’s largest wealth advisory firms”. Documents were forged under the name of the Four Seasons and Hilton Hotels to con investors into thinking the hotel chains were interested in buying the Madeira development. Website content was copied from banks such as Commerzbank and Citibank. One investor was even flown with his wife to Madeira to meet Mr. Nascimento and Mr. Sandhu who were using fake names. The couple were shown land that was not the land they were said to be investing in. The investor, who lost about £923,000, told the court that he felt like he had been “a fool” and would have to “live with that for the rest of [his] life”.

Hannah Laming, a partner at law firm Peters & Peters with a focus on business crime, said: “There’s been a lot of focus on insider dealings and the headline fines that you get from banks. But I think it’s important for [the FCA] to focus on cases like this. The people who’ve lost the money — it’s their life savings.” Still, questions have been raised as to how the same perpetrators were able to continue to operate over a four-year period, reinventing themselves even after the FCA was made aware of the first iteration of a boiler room operation involving Mr. Nascimento in 2011.

Mark Steward, the FCA’s director of enforcement and market oversight, said this was because Mr. Nascimento used numerous tactics to avoid detection. “He deliberately hid his identity, used other people like the directors and signatories on the bank accounts, [and] avoided having his name on any documentation,” he said. Others urge more transparency around what happens when the public, or businesses, report these types of scams and fraud. One expert in the sector, who did not wish to be named, said that it was unclear how the FCA handled complaints. “It would be good to know what they do with these sorts of reports from the public and how they pursue them,” the expert said. Regulators will be hoping that the publicity surrounding the case will open the eyes and ears of more unsuspecting investors, and give them the confidence to hang up on any cold callers who are offering a seemingly hot deal.

 

£10bn a year netted in increasingly sophisticated frauds

Boiler rooms operations, immortalized in films such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Wolf of Wall Street, have long been a bugbear for police and regulators. Often, vulnerable and elderly people are targeted. “Fraudsters will prey on an individual’s anxiety about the future,” said Mark Steward, the FCA’s director of enforcement and market oversight, citing as examples concerns about building an adequate pension or paying for a child’s education. But more experienced investors can also fall victim: the biggest individual loss recorded by the police stands at £6m. The scams tend to focus on “flavor of the month” investments, according to Detective Inspector Andy Thompson of City of London Police fraud squad. These have included land, diamonds, art, wine and, lately, cryptocurrencies, he said. Typically, salespeople known as “openers” call people on a list bought from marketing companies dubbed a “suckers list”. But it is so-called “closers” — those who set up the scam and tend to be the ones closing the deals — who are often the beneficiaries. During a recent raid on a boiler room scam, the police found framed photographs of Ferraris on the desks of closers, Det Insp Thompson said. This type of fraud is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Keith Brown, a professor of social work at Bournemouth University who is also involved in research into scams for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, warned that most people were unaware of the scale of financial fraud in the UK, which he estimated at about £10bn worth a year. “A lot of the new data protections and [some] new cold-calling regulations are very important and very helpful,” he said, referencing rules that came into force this month, banning unsolicited nuisance calls. “[But] there’s a lot of money to be made and criminals have a lot of resources to develop new tactics.” Det Insp Thompson said many boiler rooms “sail close to legality”, often seeking out legitimate legal advice. Others move money offshore and create unnecessary layers of bureaucracy to frustrate the authorities. “It’s Darwinian,” he said. “You always catch the ones who are less sophisticated, but then they learn from that.”

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