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Phantom menace Encrypted phone company chief signed off on CAB probe to find dirty money in Ireland

Insider information led massive hack into criminals' communications as 1,000 arrests are made worldwide

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Record seizure of methamphetamine In New Zealand with approx street value of $448 million

Record seizure of methamphetamine In New Zealand with approx street value of $448 million

Record seizure of methamphetamine In New Zealand with approx street value of $448 million

Vincent Ramos had bigger problems on his plate when the Irish Criminal Assets Bureau officer arrived at the San Diego jail where he was being held after his business Phantom Secure, an encrypted phone company, was the subject of a massive FBI sting.

Ramos had been quizzed by police from the US, Canada and Australia about biker gangs, drug cartels and transglobal crime networks who had purchased his Blackberry phones and used them to do their business under the radar of law enforcement. He was facing a lengthy jail term for facilitating serious crime.

Phantom Secure had been a business plan, dreamed up in 2008, by the middle-class marketing executive with a pretty wife and two children, but the start-up - which offered Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) phones - had attracted a far-from-legitimate customer base, and Ramos had got in deep.

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A Comanchero plot was foiled.

A Comanchero plot was foiled.

A Comanchero plot was foiled.

 

He took the form from the CAB officer and signed it off, indicating he was agreeable to the Section 4a order under the Proceeds of Crime legislation that handed dirty money over to the Irish exchequer.

Just 10 months after identifying the funds of more than €500,000 in two Irish bank accounts and a number of companies used by Ramos in Dublin, a judge in the High Court brought down the hammer on the CAB's case against Phantom Secure. Case over. Deal done. Probably one of the quickest turnarounds in Bureau's history.

Millions had actually moved through Ireland, which was being used as a stop-off point by Ramos to wash his dirty funds and move them around time zones and banking territories until he could get his hands on them as supposedly clean earnings.

He had established the accounts after using a totally innocent company to help set him up as a 'businessman' in Ireland, registering his address with their city centre offices and filing documents with the Companies Office in Dublin.

Thousands of other dodgy shell companies no doubt exist as dirty money washes around the globe in a never ending tide making up, some would say, a sixth of the world's economy. Ramos had never visited Ireland but had dealt in person with those he needed to when setting up his firms.

His story was legitimate, his demeanour businesslike and nobody had any reason to suspect that he was a vital cog in the wheels of the very top end of organised crime.

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Vincent Ramos set himself up as a ‘businessman’ in Ireland.

Vincent Ramos set himself up as a ‘businessman’ in Ireland.

Vincent Ramos set himself up as a ‘businessman’ in Ireland.

 

It's just a small chapter in the vast story that led to the FBI's announcement this week that it had set up its own encrypted phone company and honey-trapped 12,000 users of devices which were understood to be bulletproof and where criminals carried on their business with impunity.

The takedown of Vincent Ramos and his Phantom Secure company was the start of an intriguing plot which resulted in the creation of Anom, a futuristic network which promised drug dealers and killers security to talk freely.

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In a series of Crime World podcasts this week we investigate the trail that led from Ramos right into the heart of global organised crime and one which has put law enforcement in the lead for the first time in a race they had appeared to be losing.

Following the arrest of Ramos, journalist Alan Feuer tells Crime World that the double cross which involved Australian, US, Canadian and European cops and resulted in almost 1,000 arrests this week started when a young IT consultant working for Phantom was convinced to work with the good guys.

"It all started in a field office of the FBI. It's funny, but San Diego have done a lot of great drug trafficking cases over the years. The prosecutor's office there was created to take the pressure off the Los Angeles US attorney's office because they were to focus more on border crime. But that meant that they developed an expertise in their drug trafficking organisations and so in 2017 and 2018 the FBI and US attorney's office got wind of a new kind of cutting edge encrypted communications system called Phantom Secure.

"And it is one of these very simple stories because the local law enforcement made an arrest and this guy had a phone on him and they were like 'what is this thing?' because these phones are stripped down so they have no other function but to communicate within a closed loop network.

"It turned out it was a product created by a Canadian company called Phantom Secure and it was at the time the cutting edge of these systems. The FBI and US attorney's office conducted an investigation and ended up taking down the CEO Vincent Ramos and four of the top executives, and lo and behold, they find out these Phantom Secure phones have made their way across the criminal landscape and even into the Sinaloa drug cartel.

"They were all over the map. And during the course of that investigation and prosecution, the FBI turned someone, we don't know who yet, an 'anonymous source' within Phantom Secure, who essentially agreed to co-operate with the agents there in exchange for al lighter penalty.

"This person said he was working on a next generation of these encrypted devices called Anom and thus began this insane, wild operation where the FBI allowed this person to go out into the criminal world and sell these phones but with code inserted into them that would peel off a blind copy, or BCC them, so that every message that phone received or sent would copy on to another server."

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Infamous drug trafficker Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.

Infamous drug trafficker Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.

Infamous drug trafficker Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman.

 

The result of that operation was revealed this week and will go down in history as one of the greatest double crosses ever constructed by law enforcement. Spanning three continents over three years, and targeting 300 organised crime groups, Trojan Shield, or Operation Ironside, as the Australians call it, has sent shockwaves through the underworld.

For years, organised crime figures using their Anom phones thought they were untouchable and used their devices to organise drug and gun shipments, to plot murders and to conduct the business of crime.

This week that all changed and now it is the crime gangs who are left counting the cost as the FBI, Australia's federal police and Europol admitted that they have 20 million text messages in 45 languages transmitted on 12,000 handsets.

Just 24 hours before news broke of the hack, the newsroom of the New Zealand Herald got a tip-off that there was a raid on the properties of known members of organised biker gang the Comancheros.

Senior crime reporter Jared Savage started to ring around his contacts. He knew that the gang, which had featured in his bestselling book Gangland, was the top target of Kiwi police but he'd no idea what was about to unfold or that the powerful FBI was behind what would happen next. On a Crime World podcast show he describes how the ripple effects of the gangland tsunami are being felt in his country.

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Anom hack phone sting by the FBI

Anom hack phone sting by the FBI

Anom hack phone sting by the FBI

 

Like Ireland, New Zealand was not a coalition partner in the historic sting but Savage describes numerous takedowns of gangs and plots including a Comanchero plot to purchase a catamaran and rendezvous at sea with a drug 'mothership'.

So far no effects of Trojan Shield have been felt in Ireland, and unlike the UK the Garda Siochana were not invited to the table as a key police force involved in the sting. This follows from last year's Encrochat hack which resulted in thousands of arrests, seizures and mob takedowns across Europe, and particularly by the National Crime Agency and PSNI, that have been a massive blow to organised crime. Despite being fed vast amounts of intelligence, AGS have refused to detail what was done with the information or which seizures and arrests relate to it.

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