By Kay Valle/Diálogo September 14, 2021

The pandemic triggered a massive shift toward digital transactions around the world, presenting opportunities and challenges for users and companies of all sizes. In Honduras, for example, digital banking has opened the door to a new payment and consumption style. Experts estimate that seven out of 10 banking services are made possible due to digital banking in the Central American country, the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna reported on August 13, 2021.

However, this new trend has allowed cybercriminals to increase fraud and malicious activities.

“Banks have innovated with the use of technology, to make it easier for clients. But amid these well-intended offers and creation of friendly, accessible platforms, members of maras and gangs take advantage of these vulnerabilities to commit extortion,” Lieutenant Colonel Ubaldo Rodríguez, regional chief of the Central East Zone of the Honduran National Anti-Gang Force (FNAMP, in Spanish), told Diálogo.

To counter cybercriminals’ malicious activities, the FNAMP has provided basic training to its personnel, aimed at combating computer-related crimes. Members of its Intelligence Analysis Unit receive training to become cybercrime specialists. “We found ourselves with the need to train all force personnel […] to integrate this new concept that is identified as computer-related crimes,” Lt. Col. Rodríguez said.

The force’s capabilities, the officer said, include identity theft tracking, deep web tracking, forensic extraction, and advanced software and hardware search, among others.

“What we do is so that mara and gang members do not commit more advanced crimes, such as phishing [where people are tricked into sharing personal information], identity theft, or personal information theft. These members of maras and gangs are using social media networks to take advantage of anonymity and other fronts to perpetrate other crimes. This is what we are trying to avoid with the FNAMP’s personnel training,” Lt. Col. Rodríguez said.

According to data from the Honduran National Police Investigations Directorate, cybercrime in Honduras increased 500 percent from 2018 to 2020. In addition to extorting people, criminals use their cyber knowledge to break into government computer platforms and erase criminal offenses, Lt. Col. Rodríguez said.

In early 2021, the FNAMP launched an awareness campaign on ways to stay safe on the internet and report complaints, aimed at encouraging people to alert the authorities when they think fraudulent activities have taken place. According to the FNAMP, criminals increased the use of social media and messaging apps to carry out extortions.

“It has been shown that criminal organizations create fake profiles to extract information about the victims, and then engage in threats and intimidation to demand large amounts of money as extortion,” Colonel Amílcar Hernández, FNAMP director, said.

In August 2021, the FNAMP captured a criminal gang of 11 people that was engaged in threatening and collecting extortion money. “At the time of capture, we seized a large number of SIM cards used to [connect to the internet and] create accounts in electronic wallets that were activated with fake identity cards,” Lt. Col. Rodríguez said. The capture of these criminals was possible thanks to victims’ complaint reports.

So far this year, the FNAMP has captured 1,250 people for extortion-related crimes. According to data from the Honduran Secretariat of Defense, the institution also prevented extortion payments of some $400,000 in the first six months of 2021.

“The FNAMP’s greatest achievement is that we have not lagged behind in technology; we anticipate criminal actions, and we counteract and prevent threats from becoming greater,” Lt. Col. Rodríguez concluded.

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