Encrypted Platform Hack Fueled UK Cash Seizures During COVID-19 Lockdown

By Koos Couvée

The amount of illicit cash seized by London’s Metropolitan Police increased by a staggering 250 percent during the COVID-19 lockdown after overseas investigators infiltrated an encrypted global communication service used by thousands of U.K. criminals.

British officials revealed in July that they had obtained detailed intelligence on drug shipments, murder plots, money laundering schemes and other crimes by scanning millions of messages that organized criminals exchanged through EncroChat, a secured communication platform that relies on modified Android devices and operates from servers in France.

The U.K. National Crime Agency launched a nationwide effort, Operation Venetic, this year after Dutch and French authorities managed to hack into the platform, decrypt messages and share them with their British counterparts.

In London, the Metropolitan Police, or Met, launched Operation Eternal, a related campaign that has been billed as the force’s “most significant operation” against organized crime to date, and targeted drug traffickers, money launderers and other offenders among the 1,400 criminals using the devices in the U.K. capital.

New figures obtained by ACAMS suggest that the treasure trove of intelligence from EncroChat, coupled with the reported difficulties criminals faced in moving and laundering illicit cash during the coronavirus-related lockdown, have provided investigators several opportunities to seize record sums of criminal cash.

From April to August, Met investigators seized nearly £13.5 million pursuant to Operation Eternal and £27 million altogether from suspected criminals, marking a 250 percent increase on the £7.7 million taken during the same period last year. In one bust, cops took £5 million in used banknotes into custody—the largest haul of suspected illicit cash in U.K. policing history.

Nick Stevens, the outgoing head of economic crime at the Met, linked the increase to the “effects of COVID and lockdown on criminal cash” and noted that “cash is still very much king” in the context of illicit activity.

“Just in the past week, we’ve had three seizures totaling £8 million in cash and they’ve been from organized criminal networks in London,” he said at the virtual Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime this month. “The evidence basically is that the cash has come in from … all around England—Newcastle, Bradford, Liverpool and Essex—and transported into London to be placed within MSBs [money services businesses].”

From April to August, the Met obtained 151 account freezing orders to seize nearly £16 million after securing 59 such orders and seizing only £3.7 million during the same period last year.

Through the orders, which came into effect under the Criminal Finances Act of 2017, investigators can seek court approval to restrain funds for up to two years based on a reasonable suspicion that they are the proceeds of crime or intended to be used for illegal activity.

Overall, the total amount of cash seizures, confiscations and assets seized by the Met rose to almost £54 million over the five-month period, more than double the amount seized between April and August 2019.

Andy McDonald, former head of the Met’s anti-fraud and counterterrorism teams, told that the lockdown that started March 23 and began to lift in June, gave the force’s specialists more time to review intelligence and pursue cases just as criminals were struggling to move and launder their illicit cash.

At the same time, intelligence that Dutch and French authorities provided after hacking into the EncroChat platform was shared effectively among U.K. law enforcement and used to maximum impact.

“All of this uplift is down to the use of better intelligence, better information-sharing and people being more comfortable working together, and the EncroChat hack is probably a key driver,” McDonald said. “On the other hand, you see that actually criminals may not necessarily be that sophisticated and they don’t integrate their illicit cash fast enough.”

Investigators must still obtain forfeiture or confiscation orders to take any of the nearly £54 million they have seized and funds they have frozen since the lockdown began into permanent custody.

Investigators, who could read EncroChat messages in real time until June 13—when EncroChat discovered the hack and warned clients to discard their devices—expect that the intelligence gleaned from the platform will fuel investigations for years to come.

Graeme Biggar, the head of the U.K. National Economic Crime Center, a branch of the NCA tasked with coordinating Britain’s efforts against illicit finance, told the online symposium in Cambridge that Operation Venetic had led to 1,000 arrests and the seizure of 80 firearms, three tons of illicit drugs and £56 million in criminal cash.

“That work has given us a phenomenal insight into how money laundering happens in the U.K. … which has allowed us to embark on some new investigations into high-end money laundering and international money controllers in and relevant to the U.K.,” he said.

Contact Koos Couvée at

Topics : Asset Forfeiture , Anti-money laundering , Counterterrorist Financing , Fraud
Source: United Kingdom , United Kingdom: National Crime Agency
Document Date: September 17, 2020