The video the Dubai government put out of police arresting a group of 12 criminals for computer fraud in an operation dubbed Fox Hunt 2 could be the coming attraction for a new cybercrime-focused television series or James Bond movie. Sirens blare, computer graphics showing high-tech tracking dashboards are superimposed over the images of men in masks and gloves typing furiously on keyboards, criminal profiles complete with headshots and comical aliases (“Hushpuppi”) pop up, as do photographs of the criminals connected by laserlike red lines that seem intended to illustrate the complexity of the scheme. Truly, it’s a four-minute masterpiece marketing the policing of cybercrime as an excitement-filled adventure rather than a laborious process of combing through digital forensics data.
The video is narrated in Arabic, though even if you don’t speak the language, you will not miss out on any of its drama. You may, however, miss some of the finer points of the actual operation. On June 10, Dubai police arrested Raymond Igbalode Abbas, also known as “Hushpuppi,” and Olalekan Jacob Ponle, alias “Woodberry,” as well as 10 other cybercriminals on charges of money laundering and computer fraud. The group allegedly created phishing versions of the official websites for banks and well-known companies. They then tricked people into entering information about their credit cards or bank accounts into those sites, at which point the criminals could then initiate fraudulent transfers from their victims’ accounts. They also sent emails from compromised accounts to trick companies into transferring money to them.
The scale of the operation was impressive—during the raid, Dubai police reportedly seized more than $40 million in cash, as well as 13 luxury cars, 21 computers, 47 smartphones, 15 memory sticks, five hard disks containing 119,580 fraud files, and the addresses of 1,926,400 victims, according to Brigadier Jamal Salem Al Jallaf, director of the criminal investigation department at Dubai Police. One of the things that made it possible to track the criminals, in fact, was their considerable wealth and penchant for flashy, public displays of their ill-gotten gains. The promotional video made by the Dubai government includes screenshots of Hushpuppi’s Instagram account, where he presented himself as a real estate developer to his 2.4 million followers and posed with his fancy cars, private planes, and designer accessories.
“People always be waiting for me to slip, but every time I slip, it’s always into more BLESSINGS #Balenciaga #Fendi #Yeezy #Rolex,” reads the caption on one characteristic Hushpuppi post of him posing in a luxury retail store. “Wearin a Dolce&Gabbana PJ to fly in a PJ,” boasts another in which he—you guessed it—poses on a private jet in pink designer pajamas. In another photo, he shows off a $150,000 Richard Mille watch; yet another shows him wearing a custom purple Versace bathrobe with the name Hushpuppi on the back, standing in front of his “new bespoke black badge Rolls-Royce Wraith.” You can see why the Dubai government thought this would make good fodder for an action movie.
These sorts of lavish displays of wealth punctuate the promotional video of the arrests—it includes a shot of one of the criminals posing with huge wads of cash, and another of one of them standing on the hood of a bright yellow sports car, in front of a private plane. These images are interspersed with footage of the Dubai police conducting highly stylized digital analysis in a room of large computers, as if to suggest they were able to work backward from the perpetrators’ Instagram accounts to find them. And certainly the extensive trail of digital breadcrumbs showcasing their wealth must have helped at least a little bit.
What’s perhaps most surprising is that the criminals were not more cautious about displaying their money so publicly. Hushpuppi’s Instagram account was supposedly a useful tool for helping him find wealthy victims to defraud, but he must have known it could also draw other sorts of less desirable attention. Scrolling through the photos he posted, you get the sense that he felt perfectly safe in Dubai despite being wanted for fraud in Europe, the United States, and Nigeria.
Cybercriminals several thousand miles from their victims sometimes fall into a sense of comfort and complacency, believing they are unlikely to be pursued by whichever country they are currently in. Hushpuppi’s Instagram is in a league of its own when it comes to displays of indulgent personal purchases, but it’s a little bit reminiscent of Russian cybercriminal Evgeniy Bogachev’s weaknesses for leopard print pajamas, yachts, a pricy Bengal cat, and—you guessed it—luxury cars. Another Russian cybercriminal wanted by the FBI, Maksim Yakubets, owns a custom Lamborghini with a license plate that translates to the word thief, and spent more than $330,000 on his lavish wedding to the daughter of a former officer of the Russian security service.
Generally, when cybercriminals believe they are based someplace safe enough to flaunt their illegal wealth without facing any consequences, they’re right—as in the case of Bogachev and Yakubets—so it’s refreshing to see that strategy backfire in Dubai. The flip side of watching cybercriminals show off their success on Instagram, however, turns out to be watching law enforcement trumpet their victories on Twitter with fast-paced cinematography and polished computer graphics. All things considered, it’s not a bad trade.