Eight people – including one from Coventry – arrested on suspicion of the hacking of mobile phones belonging to high-profile celebrities in America have been released under investigation.

The arrests were made this week as the National Crime Agency (NCA) teamed up with the US Secret Service, Homeland Security Investigations, FBI and the Santa Clara California District Attorney’s Office after they uncovered a network of criminals in the UK working together to access victims’ phone numbers and take control of their apps or accounts by changing the passwords.

This is known as a ‘sim swapping’ attack and enabled the culprits to steal money, Bitcoin and personal information, including contacts synced with online accounts.

Social media accounts of unamed musicians and sports stars were also hijacked to post content and send messages masquerading as the victims.

Eight suspected members of the criminal group, aged 18 to 26, were arrested in England and Scotland on Tuesday (February 9). Among them was a 19-year-old man from Coventry arrested by the NCA on suspicion of Computer Misuse Act offences.

The NCA has now told CoventryLive that all the suspects have been released under investigation.



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What is sim swapping?

Sim swapping involves cyber criminals taking over use of a victim’s phone number by essentially deactivating their SIM and porting the allocated number over to a SIM belonging to a member of the criminal network.

This is typically achieved by the criminals exploiting phone service providers to do the swap on their behalf, either via a corrupt insider or using social engineering techniques.

After gaining control of the phone number, they use the ‘change password’ function on apps, which leads to them receiving reset codes sent via SMS (or to subsequently compromised email accounts) to reset passwords.

After changing the passwords, the victim is denied access and the criminals have free reign over their contacts, banking apps, emails and social media accounts.

Lucrative targets

Paul Creffield, head of operations in the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit, said: “Sim swapping requires significant organisation by a network of cyber criminals, who each commit various types of criminality to achieve the desired outcome.

“This network targeted a large number of victims in the US and regularly attacked those they believed would be lucrative targets, such as famous sports stars and musicians.

“In this case, those arrested face prosecution for offences under the Computer Misuse Act, fraud and money laundering as well as extradition to the US.

“As well as causing a lot of distress and disruption, we know they stole large sums from their victims, from either their bank accounts or bitcoin wallets.

“Cyber criminality is not restricted by borders and our efforts to tackle it reflect that. This investigation is the result of successful collaboration with international partners in the US and Europol, as well as our law enforcement colleagues here in the UK.”





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