CYBERCRIME
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Banking & Finance

How Taiwanese police cracked NT$83 million ATM heist

International crime ring targeted 41 First Bank teller machines

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 10:33pm

Taiwanese police have revealed to foreign media for the first time how they managed to crack an NT$83 million (HK$20.4 million) bank heist by an international crime ring last month.

In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, Paul Liu Po-liang, the head of the island’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, said it was made possible by the help of civic-minded residents, a dense network of surveillance cameras, many sleepless nights and a little luck.

The suspect was smart enough to switch off his phone, but all the time we knew he was still in Yilan
Paul Liu, head of Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau

It all began at 0.33am on Sunday July 10, when a hacked server at a London branch of Taiwan’s First Commercial Bank instructed the bank’s automatic teller machine in the central city of Taichung to spew out NT$90,000 worth of notes.

That was just a test, and in the next 15 hours, 40 other ATMs at the bank’s branches in Taichung, New Taipei City and Taipei dispensed a total of NT$83.27 million in cash in the first transcontinental ATM attack to target Taiwan.

None of the branches detected the ATM abnormalities in the early hours of Sunday but a couple waiting behind two foreigners at an ATM machine that night called police at 8.30pm after noticing they were acting suspiciously.

Police later found NT$60,000 worth of banknotes stuck in the ATM’s cash dispenser.

“It was the first time the heist came to light, and we alerted the bank,” Liu said. “Hours later, we received another theft report in the same neighbourhood, and this time we got a car licence plate number,” Liu said.

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Finding a pair of masked foreigners acting oddly in front of an ATM suspicious, a resident had chased them down the road before they fled in a car rented at the airport. He jotted down the licence plate number and also discovered the suspects had left a credit card issued by a Russian bank at the scene.

“Until then, we thought it was just a pair of foreign suspects involved in the heist,” Liu said, adding that the rental car was traced to a Russian man, Sergey Berezovskiy, and his travel partner Vladimir Berkman, who had left Taiwan on the morning of Monday July 11.

Liu said Taiwanese police immediately sought help from their counterparts in Hong Kong, as the pair was flying to Russia via Hong Kong.

“We had our warrant issued, but even with the speedy help from Hong Kong police, it was a bit too late as the plane they took had already departed,” Liu said, adding that his bureau and the Hong Kong police both notified Russian police of the alleged scam through Interpol.

However, the Russian police did not hold the pair due to a lack of evidence, as the suitcases they carried did not contain any Taiwanese bills, Liu added.

As the Taiwanese police probed the heist, First Bank revealed that 41 of its ATMs had been hacked and some NT$83 million of cash had been stolen.

“Then came endless police efforts looking for suspect’s images through surveillance cameras,” Liu said. Taiwan has a dense network of such cameras installed in public places, especially at ATMs, and around banks, airports, train and subway stations.

He said about 200 officers were involved in the investigation, with many assigned to search footage from more than 1,500 cameras for images of the suspects. Taipei police said that effort required around 100,000 hours of work in total.

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Police finally came up with six separate pairs of suspects from Russia, Romania, Estonia, Moldova, Latvia and Australia, all of whom entered Taiwan from July 6. Most of them left on July 10 and 11 after finishing their cash collecting jobs.

Another Russian woman arrived in Taiwan on the morning of July 11 and left the same night. She was seen in surveillance camera footage from that evening carrying a white suitcase containing cash which she handed to another Russian suspect, identified as Evgenii Babii, who stored it along with two other suitcases in a locker at Taipei train station before leaving Taiwan on July 13.

Liu said police knew the group must have left the money in Taiwan, to be handled by others, as X-ray scanners at the airport found no trace of the funds before their departure.

“We then shifted the direction of our investigation to the hotel where the first pair of suspects had stayed after we learned from the hotel that before the two left, they had paid in advance for one night for their friend to check in the next day,” Liu said.

The credit card dropped by Berezovskiy allowed police to find out where he and Berkman had stayed and then identify the Latvian money handler who checked into the hotel after they left as Andrejs Peregudovs.

When television reports alerted Peregudovs to the police hunt for him, he notified the ringleader to send two other handlers to pick up the money. He then hid out in the northeastern county of Yilan, but police managed to trace him via his mobile phone signal.

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On July 17, an off-duty police officer, holidaying in the area with his family, spotted Peregudovs having lunch at a small restaurant in Yilan. He called police as soon as the suspect left the restaurant and Peregudovs was arrested half an hour later.

Liu said a picture of Peregudovs had been sent to all members of the force through a messaging application it used to help police identify crime suspects.

“The suspect was smart enough to switch off his phone, but all the time we knew he was still in Yilan,” Liu said, adding that Peregudovs had also deleted all his phone messages to try to stop police from tracing other suspects.

Meanwhile, footage from surveillance cameras at Taipei train station showed two other suspects, Mihail Colibaba from Romania and Niklae Penkov from Moldova, carrying the three suitcases that had been stored in the locker. They were tracked down to a plush hotel in northeastern Taipei and arrested while enjoying a steak meal. Police found NT$60.24 million of cash in their hotel room.

Liu said that three days later, on July 20, police recovered NT$12.63 million that Peregudovs had hidden in a hillside park in northeastern Taipei before fleeing to Yilan.

The stash of cash in the park had earlier been discovered by an elderly Taiwanese man who took about NT$4.54 million home and hid it in his kitchen. Nine hours later, at the insistence of his son, the man handed the cash in to the police, claiming he had no idea it was stolen money.

To date, nearly NT$5.79 million of the stolen cash is still unaccounted for. Police suspect the ATM bandits converted it into other currencies at the airport before leaving the island.

Liu said Taiwan’s surveillance cameras, often criticised by privacy advocates, had played a key role in cracking the case and had also helped solve many other crimes.

Police had also made exhaustive efforts to collect fingerprints and DNA samples from the crime scenes, hotels, the airport, taxis and rented vehicles.

“International cooperation is highly necessary in curbing cases like this,” Liu said, referring to media reports that a group of hackers had stolen at least US$300 million – and maybe even three times that amount – from banks across the world, with the majority of the victims in Eastern Europe.

While it was not known if that group was related to the First Bank hackers, Liu said Taiwanese police were willing to share intelligence on the case with police in other countries, even though the island was not a member of Interpol.

Liu said they had already shared the intelligence with police in Hong Kong.

He also called for continued cooperation with the mainland, which used to have a crime-fighting agreement with Taiwan. That agreement – signed in 2009 – has apparently been shelved due to strained cross-strait ties.

“Last year, Taiwan police uncovered 53 telecoms scams, of which 50 were targeting mainland people,” Liu said, adding that the two sides needed to continue to cooperate in cracking down on crimes.