Delegates at the recent 85th Interpol General Assembly in Bali have elected China’s Meng Hongwei as their new President. Mr Meng, who describes himself as a veteran policeman, will take up his duties immediately. He said he stands ready to do everything he can towards the cause of policing in the world. I noticed he mentioned ‘telecoms fraud’ in his address:

“We currently face some of most serious global public security challenges since World War Two. Terrorism is spreading; Cybercrime is arising; telecoms fraud is escalating; all kinds of traditional and non-traditional transnational crimes are rising.”

Since Mr Meng will lead the Interpol Executive Committee for the next four years, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify what he means by ‘telecoms fraud’.

‘Telecoms Fraud’ in search engines

I monitor news reports of telecoms fraud and, for over a year, headlines like these have been dominant:

  • China arrests 62 people in biggest telecom fraud
  • China arrests 101 suspects involved in telecom frauds
  • Armenia Deports 129 Telecom Fraud Suspects to China
  • Chinese police, banks cooperate to fight telecom fraud

In the ‘Armenian’ case, China Daily reports that members of the Armenia-based syndicate had been telephoning people on the Chinese mainland falsely representing themselves as law enforcement officials. They were alleged to have been involved in more than 50 cases, defrauding people out of more than US$1.2 million.

Clearly this is a major social engineering issue but, in my view, it’s not telecoms fraud. Here’s my thinking. If we meet in person and you dishonestly deceive me into parting with my money, then you’ve committed a fraud. If you commit a similar fraud on someone else over the telephone, it’s still a fraud, but not a telecoms fraud. Otherwise you could argue that a fraud committed using a landline was telecoms fraud but a similar fraud committed over mobile is cybercrime because a smartphone is a computer.

Let’s be clear:

Telecoms fraud is the use of telecoms products or services with the intention of illegally acquiring money, equipment or services from a telecoms provider.

The top headline, above, refers to a case where a construction business is reported to have been defrauded of over US$17 million. The firm’s finance supervisor was contacted by people claiming to be police officers, bank staff and prosecutors. They told him the bank account needed official review and directed him to download software so they could access the account. So why is this reported as telecoms fraud rather than Cybercrime?

I look forward to this post generating a lively debate and would welcome a confirmation from Interpol of its working definition of ‘telecoms fraud’.

P.S. Mr Meng introduced his address with a story about a song he liked singing when he was young. One of the lines goes

‘Walking on the street, I found a penny and I handed the penny to Mr. Policeman.’

I’m glad we’re aligned on theft.