Network operators raised the alarm when they noticed a high level of calls made by millions of customers to premium-rate numbers, mostly at unusual times of day.
‘Operation Rikati’ was launched, and quickly revealed that the calls had been made during the night when the mobile phone owner would not have realised – especially as the App switched off the phone or placed it in silent mode whilst ringing the numbers.
Some of the calls went on for up to half an hour.
To convince users to download the App, the fraudsters used the names and logos of real companies, or fake adverts saying, ‘click here for the best tricks to avoid hair loss’ or ‘for the best porn videos’.
If users did so, the bogus App installed itself automatically.
Where the programme posed as that of a ‘real’ company, it was advertised on social media as being free of charge to download.
The application automatically rang numbers beginning in 803, which are top-rate tariff, or sent text messages to premium-rate numbers.
If the Apps raised suspicion, they were deactivated at source and relaunched under another name, which enabled them to escape scrutiny by mobile operators.
Lists of premium-rate numbers for calling or sending messages to were acquired from a telecommunications operator based in Barcelona, whose owner is among the seven arrested.
Although the list only contained about 20 numbers, this was enough to generate over 21 million premium-rate text messages, each of which saw the mobile phone owner charged around €1.50.
With between 20 and 25 numbers called or messages sent per month, users found their bills went up by around €30.
They tended not to report the matter, as the additional sum was low enough that it could have just been the result of making extra calls or using additional data and not remembering.
Also, with operators having applied price hikes that are under investigation by consumer protection groups as possibly being abusive and in breach of contract, many affected phone owners simply assumed this was why their bills had gone up by €30 or so a month.
The racket had been operating since 2013 and, in the last four years, has netted nearly €30 million.
Based in Catalunya, the criminal operation set up front companies in the Canary Islands, Andorra, Luxembourg and Hong Kong to launder their earnings.
Guardia Civil officers seized around 1,000 Apps under construction and said the con-artists had been doctoring them to make them even more sophisticated and difficult to detect by operators.
Mobile phone providers in Sant Cugat and Mollet del Vallès (Barcelona province) and in Santa Cruz de Tenerife have been searched and lists of consumers conned into installing the Apps seized.
Top-of-the-range cars and assets valued at several million euros have been embargoed and bank accounts frozen in what police say is one of the largest mobile phone fraud rackets in national history.
The Guardia Civil has set up a website where mobile phone owners can type in their number and see whether or not they have inadvertently become a victim of the scam – Gdt.guardiacivil.es/webgdt/inforikati.php.