JOHANNESBURG—It is springtime dawn in Equestria, a far-eastern suburb of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. A heatwave’s scalding the area, with a temperature well over 80F—even though it’s only 5.30 a.m. It is weather more characteristic of midsummer.
And things are about to get hotter.
A 20-strong group of men and women in plain clothes, some with pistols and assault rifles ready, descends on a townhouse that looks like every other one in the complex; neat, with a manicured lawn and small garden, a fountain gushing water into a pond containing a few orange and black koi fish.
They gain entry after a simple knock at the door. About 15 minutes later, two portly men, handcuffed with heads bowed, are led from the home and bundled into an unmarked black sedan, which speeds away immediately.
This is a scene that doesn’t play out every day in Equestria, named after the many horse events held in the suburb.
South African property website SA-venues.com describes Equestria as a “thoroughly modern suburb dominated by townhouse, simplex, and estate living much sought after by first-time homeowners and the young jet set crowd.”
Equestria is in a valley where wealthy ranchers keep horses to ride in nearby mountains, family members jog to stay fit, with a plush shopping mall nearby.
“I think it’s fair to say the men we arrested were not here to jog and ride horses, but they probably did a lot of shopping judging from all the cash we found in their safe,” Colonel Katlego Mogale, of South Africa’s elite police investigative unit, The Hawks, told The Epoch Times.
No. Equestria’s not the kind of place one would expect to find a base allegedly belonging to one of the most notorious gangs of cybercriminals in the world.
“We suspect the men we arrested, who are Nigerian nationals aged 39 and 42, are members of the Air Lords. This was a joint operation involving us, Interpol, and the United States Secret Service. They are working closely with us because a lot of the Air Lords’ victims are American citizens and American businesses,” said Mogale.
According to the website of the Secret Service, it’s tasked with safeguarding the payment and financial systems of the United States from a wide range of financial and cyber-based crimes.
Mogale said information contained in laptops, mobile and satellite phones, and other communications equipment seized during the recent raid in Pretoria would show that the “two major operatives” of the Air Lords were primarily involved in “romance scams.”
“Their victims are lonely and vulnerable people worldwide, but mostly in America. They love targeting Americans obviously because the dollar is the strongest and most stable currency, and is also the most traded and laundered currency by global organized crime groups.”
Mogale explained the Air Lords’ modus operandi: “They look into your profile as you interact on Facebook or on Twitter and they can assess that you most probably have a spouse that has died and your kids are not staying with you, and they entice you into a relationship so you can trust them.
“Then they start borrowing small amounts of money so you get comfortable with them, and eventually they start asking for big amounts.”
She said U.S. authorities are investigating cases of Americans defrauded of “many millions” of dollars in online scams.
“This is assistance we’re offering to the United States because they’ve been looking for these suspects as well. They’ll most probably be extradited to the United States where they’ll stand [trial] for the charges that’ve been laid that side.”
A senior South African law enforcement official, not authorized to speak with the media, told The Epoch Times U.S. authorities are in a “much better position” to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes than local agencies.
“This is true of the whole of Africa,” he said. “That’s why these cybercriminals thrive on the continent, because we don’t have the resources and training to take them down.”
Victims of romance scams, embarrassed and ashamed, are often hesitant to cooperate in investigations. The Epoch Times spoke to several United States-based victims, on condition their identities and places of residence were not identified.
One, a recently-divorced 47-year-old who once prided himself on his “careful and conservative” character, told how he’d befriended a “servicewoman based in the Middle East” via Facebook.
“She sent me photographs of her, obviously I now know they were lifted from someone else’s social media account, with her buddies, standing in aircraft hangers, around military equipment, in uniforms, at military meetings.”
He said he and “Pamela” chatted via Facebook for several months.
“At one stage I suggested we speak over the phone, or Skype, but she said it was useless trying as the connectivity where she was stationed was so bad.
“She was so witty and charming. She seemed to know a lot about where I lived, because she said she used to visit her favorite aunt nearby when she was a kid. We started becoming much closer when she told me she’d also been traumatized by divorce.
“I told her about my trauma. I can’t remember how it came up, but Pamela once offered to wire me more than $1000; I said it wasn’t necessary…”
But the offer laid the foundation for what was about to come.
“Pamela had talked a lot about leaving the military and pursuing her passion for coffee, said her dream was to import coffee from East Africa to a specific part of the United States where she said there was a market,” he explained.
Soon, the requests for money began.
“Pamela initially said she had funded the business, but was $20,000 short. Without thinking, I agreed to help her out. She sent me official-looking forms that appeared to be from the Ethiopian government, and even a business-registration certificate.”
He said he ended up funding Pamela’s “coffee import enterprise” to the tune of around $50,000 before he became suspicious and approached police.
“Investigators have since told me that one of these scammers’ favorite ploys is to pose as someone in the military, because people in America generally have great respect for individuals serving in the U.S. military.”
Mogale said cybercrime gangs had in the past decade “made South Africa their home” because the country, as Africa’s most industrialized economy, offered “superior” communications systems, including internet access.
The two biggest gangs on the continent, according to African intelligence agencies and Interpol, are the Air Lords and the Black Axe.
Aron Hyman, a South African journalist who’s been investigating them for several years, told The Epoch Times both have their roots in Nigerian university fraternities.
“They started out as that, as a way to give students political representation and a political voice and brotherhood after the decolonization period [in the 1960s].
“Then they unfortunately turned into quite vicious organized crime rackets, in the early 2000s, involved in everything from political assassinations, to hits on businessmen, to human trafficking, and lately they’re delving deep into cybercrime.”
Hyman said the Air Lords, and especially the Black Axe, have become so powerful that they now have bases around the world, including across Europe, where law enforcement agencies describe them as “mafia.”
He said the gangs hire professional linguists to write scripts for them while conning victims, so they don’t make language errors that could raise suspicions.
“Their scripts are carefully crafted, perfected and they work like a charm. They have many, many victims around the globe. People have told me how they gave their pensions away, how they gave their family’s money away.
“We’re talking about people who really aren’t rich, who are vulnerable, in their 50s, 60s, 70s, trying to find romance, and then they get taken. It’s not just the financial trauma; these people are taken on a serious psychological horror rollercoaster.”
Hawks chief, General Godfrey Lebeya, said the gangs are also involved in “business email compromise” fraud, more commonly known as “BEC scams.”
In a typical BEC scam, the cyber-attacker impersonates someone the email recipient should trust, like a manager. The sender tricks the recipient into transferring money to a bank account belonging to a so-called “money mule.”
BEC fraud also sometimes involve hacking of email accounts.
Last year, the Hawks arrested eight Black Axe “kingpins” in Cape Town and Johannesburg, for alleged involvement in a BEC scam that defrauded a United States-based mental health organization of $500,000.
Investigators have told The Epoch Times the cybercriminals diverted the money in tranches to several victims of romance scams.
“The victims were conned into accepting the money, which they believed to be legitimate, and then given instructions to pay it into accounts belonging to people working with the gang,” an officer involved in one investigation said.
The eight alleged Black Axe leaders face extradition to the United States where they’re wanted for “stealing millions of dollars from American citizens,” said Mogale.
She added both the Hawks and the Secret Service were dedicated to ending the Air Lords and Black Axe presence in South Africa.
Said Mogale: “We can’t have them here using our country as their stamping ground, using South African resources to cause so much pain around the world. Month by month they are finding out that there’s no place for them here.”