The new county lines? Teenagers drawn into world of cybercrime scams

Investigations editor David Cohen explores the booming underworld of online scamming, where teenagers are earning thousands of pounds a month by selling guides on committing fraud

Wednesday 27 October 2021 16:25
<p>Levels of online fraud have soared since the start of the pandemic  </p>

Levels of online fraud have soared since the start of the pandemic

Charlie is 20 years old. He has barely done an honest day’s work, yet, if he is to be believed, he lives quite the lavish lifestyle. He drives a £55,000 BMW M4, holidays in the Maldives, Dubai and Spain, and has a cache of designer clothes and Rolex watches. He pulls, he estimates, “around £250,000 a year”, which he “splits with a couple others”.

Charlie – not his real name – is what is known in the trade as a prolific scammer. He makes his money through online shopping fraud on a grand scale from the safety of his bedroom, a coffee shop or his car. It is not just regular online fraud, however, but trading in information – known as “methods” – that facilitates others to carry out online fraud.

Today he is speaking to me in a car parked up on a side road in Brixton, south London, and he wears a balaclava and sunglasses to hide his identity. We have been introduced by Abdul Karim Abdullah, 35, a youth worker who has observed with growing alarm how tech-savvy youths from low-income families have been sucked into cybercrime. It has taken months of cajoling for Charlie – who Karim has known for six years and is hoping to turn legit – to agree to meet.

Karim said: “Cybercrime is becoming more popular than county lines. Since Covid we have seen a massive rise.” Charlie interrupted: “It’s already way more popular than county lines.” How does he know? “I live right in the centre of it and I know both worlds. It’s much less risk and you make more. I got into scamming four or five years ago and it was new. Now I hardly know anyone who is not doing it.”

Charlie, who says he has never been arrested, scoffed: “Your chances of being caught are… let’s just say the police are way behind the curve on this.”

His testimony comes as levels of online fraud soar – up by 50-80 per cent since the pandemic. Action Fraud, the UK’s national call centre for fraud, received a record 906,944 complaints amounting to £2.3bn in the year to 31 March 2021 – of which more than 80 per cent involved cybercrime. Just eight per cent of these were referred to the police and less than one per cent resulted in a perpetrator being charged or cautioned. Police say there are more than 3.4 million fraud incidents a year and although fraud makes up a third of all reported crime, less than one per cent of police resources are spent investigating it, according to the National Economic Crime Centre.

One teenager showed me his crypto wallet the other day and it had three Bitcoin, each worth £40,000, which he had made by cybercrime. He’s 19

Abdul Karim Abdullah

A recent poll commissioned by Barclays brought home the scale of the “scamdemic”. One in three people said they had been the victim of a scam in the last three months, with young people aged 21-30 the most common victims.

Craig Mullish, of Action Fraud and City of London Police, said: “Fraud is the fastest growing crime in the UK. We are seeing a rising number of younger people who have fallen victim – typically to online shopping fraud – which is unsurprising considering the increased number of people shopping online.”

Karim said he first became aware of scamming a few years ago when he was talking to four teenagers and one said he was making “Ps” – cash - by “selling methods”. “I misheard and thought he was referring to crystal meth but when I challenged him, all four cracked up laughing.”

That was when Karim learned that selling methods meant “selling methods of doing online fraud” and that this involved information targeting specific websites – often high-end ones “like Louis Vuitton” but also small, high-volume purchases “via Deliveroo”. He added: “Youths call it doing Louis Vuitton fraud or Deliveroo fraud because they got methods to get past those specific online defences which they can buy and sell on the dark web but also on regular social media platforms like Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.”

It’s a world with its own coded language with criminals hawking “fullz” or “deets”, meaning “full credit card details”. Karim showed me screengrabs of conversations on WhatsApp where someone had bought a single person’s “fullz” for £25 and a package of 10 for £200. It listed the person’s name, date of birth, address, phone, credit card details, bank details and memorable name, everything they needed for identity theft – and the victims came from all over the UK.

Charlie explained: “Once you got methods and fullz, you can get anything you want. You pay say £300 for a method that gets you into a website that sells £1,000 designer jackets and your fullz will work maybe five or 10 times, so that’s £10k in jackets before they realise they been scammed and shut the loophole.”

Another regular scam, said Charlie, operates around takeaway pizza. “Say you’re hungry, you message your guy on social media, ‘Yo my bro, I wanna make an order for pizza,’ and he’s gonna say, ‘Cool, go on Dominoes, do your basket, screenshot your basket and send it to me.’” Say it comes to £100, he charges you £50 cos he uses deets. He does your order, you get your pizza half price, he gets £50 and Dominoes gets f***ed. This is widespread.”

What worries Karim is the extent to which scamming is becoming normalised. “One teenager showed me his crypto wallet the other day and it had three Bitcoin, each worth £40,000, which he had made by cybercrime. He’s 19 years old. It’s getting deep into youth culture now and it’s romanticised by scam rap [a new sub-genre]. Just like drill music popularised knife crime, scam rap makes scamming cool.”

These scam rappers are all over YouTube. One video by “Tankz” called “London Scammer” has attracted 8.4 million views. The chorus goes: “Look, I’m a London scammer. I see it, I want it, I click it. I make so much money I may have to get an accountant, I got fullz off the dark web, I making more than my parents.”

A still from the London Scammer video by Tankz

US scam rap groups like the Shittyboyz from Detroit post videos like “Scampire” which has had 149,000 views. And “Swipe Story” by TeejayX6, also from Detroit, shows him apparently scamming Walmart and has had 4.6 million views. Elsewhere on YouTube, The Independent found videos offering “free tutorials for beginners” on how to access “fullz” – “tasters” as it were, followed by offers for a private 30-minute online consultation costing $200 (£145), or 15 minutes for $100 (£72).

Banks are another favourite target of a scam known as spoofing. Charlie said: “You call someone pretending to be their bank, you tell them their account has been hacked, the customer panics and they transfer money to an account you have set up. Obviously most people don’t fall for it, but for those who do, we clean out their savings.”

Does he feel bad? “Not really,” he said. “Who is the victim? People get re-compensated by their banks.”

TeejayX6 in ‘Swipe Story’

But scamming is not “victimless”. In 2020, £479m was lost to a process called authorised push-payment (APP) fraud, where people transferred money to scammers’ accounts, of which just 40 per cent was refunded to the customer, according to the UK Finance Trade Association. This year has seen a near 50 per cent rise in APP fraud.

Charlie had begun our rendezvous by telling me he was dialling down his involvement in cybercrime but while we were talking he fielded half a dozen incoming “business calls”, eventually telling me, “Sorry, I got to wrap this up.” When I asked if it was back to business as usual, he laughed and said: “We’ll see where the day goes, bro. Whenever something big comes along, I gotta get involved.”

Karim shook his head in despair. “It’s robbery plain and simple and we’re seeing youth culture celebrate it. The new experts in cyber fraud are teenagers. For me it’s a grooming issue – young people introducing other young people to criminality and the dark web where they will be extremely vulnerable. My fear is that we are raising a generation of young cybercriminals and we don’t even know it.

“It’s not just the police who are behind the curve, or companies that don’t want to talk about it because it means admitting data breaches. It’s all of us and we don’t have a clue how it works. This is me as a frontline youth worker saying I will be launching a full awareness campaign – we need to start training youth workers and going into schools to warn kids about it. Because this is the new county lines.”

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