The discovery of a transnational criminal network of text messaging phishing scammers during a “first of its kind” Department of Internal Affairs investigation last year led to an 83% downturn in the reporting of scams.

Operation Cargo began in May last year following a tip off by a telecommunications company and uncovered a network of scammers who can be held responsible for most SMS scams in New Zealand last year.

Twelve search warrants were undertaken during 2023 as part of the SMS scam disruption operation.

A total of $35,000 worth of SIM cards and hardware, almost $10,000 worth of luxury items including a designer handbag and skincare products, and more than $56,000 in cash were seized by the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA).

The operation revealed an approach to scamming never seen before here in Aotearoa, the DIA’s manager of digital messaging and systems Joe Teo said.

“Scammers are using special software and hardware to send SMS scam messages en masse.”

The DIA investigation attributed these messages to equipment that could be controlled remotely from a laptop or mobile phone.

Multiple scammers were also found to be in possession of SIM boxes — devices which house multiple SIM cards used to proliferate the mass sending of scam text messages.

‘Cross-government and industry approach’

The DIA said a new approach was needed for Operation Cargo as criminal offending was still underway during the operation.

The scope of the offending was outside of the jurisdiction of the civil Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007 (UEMA) which the DIA is the regulator of.

The 2023 Digital Messaging Transparency Report outlined one incident where scammers used text messaging to defraud customers and gain access to their bank accounts.

Scammers then used the proceeds to load virtual debit/credit cards on their smartphones which were used to make high-end purchases or to withdraw cash.

“This type of offending is captured by the Crimes Act 1961 but not the UEMA. To effectively disrupt scammers’ activities, we had to respond with a cross-government and industry approach.”

Collaboration with NZ Police, NZ Customs, CERT NZ and close relationships with telecommunications providers and banks allowed the disruption of “numerous scam campaigns” throughout the year, Teo said.

He said one reason Operation Cargo has been so successful is due to New Zealanders reporting scam messages through the DIA service 7726.

“It does make a difference and means we can bring these scams to an end and hold the culprits responsible.”

Twenty-seven Operation Cargo investigations remain open as of December 31, 2023.