Authorities in Brazil have dismantled a criminal organization specialized in the cloning of debit cards to steal emergency aid and other relief funds, highlighting how criminal groups are cashing in on the COVID-19 pandemic by exploiting the country’s economic and social crisis.
On the morning of January 6, police in Rio de Janeiro arrested three alleged members of the sophisticated ATM criminal ring, which had been operating in several municipalities of the city since November, Globo’s G1 reported.
The group installed hidden cameras and skimming devices on ATM machines that record people’s PIN numbers. With the card details of the victims, they were able to steal funds from COVID-19 relief programs, including the Bolsa Familia cash-transfer program, as government programs do not require biometric authentication.
Such criminal networks have become commonplace in Brazil. In June, a similar modus operandi played out in São Paulo, where a criminal group cloned debit cards in lottery shops in the northern state of Ceará and then made cash withdrawals in São Paulo. And in August, authorities busted another criminal ring dedicated to stealing emergency aid money during the pandemic.
More than 54.5 billion reais (about $10 billion) has been paid to beneficiaries of the emergency aid program in the state of São Paulo during the coronavirus pandemic, reported Folha de São Paulo.
However, ATM robberies are not the only crime to target banks in Brazil. The country has seen a spate of audacious bank heists in recent months, the most high-profile of which was in late November in the southern Brazilian city of Criciúma. A group of about 40 heavily armed men stormed a number of banks in the city, stealing over 800,000 reais ($150,000). The following day, armed men laid siege to another town in northern Brazil.
These attacks came just a week after a similar heist to a bank in Arararquara in São Paulo state, where criminals stole 5 million reais ($1 million). And earlier in the year, there were similar attacks in cities such as Botucatu, Ourinhos and São Domingo do Capim.
InSight Crime Analysis
Bank robberies in Brazil have increased dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen criminal groups seek to find new opportunities as many criminal economies have been significantly disrupted.
As bank coffers across Brazil were filled with emergency aid money, criminal groups saw an opportunity. The director of Brazilian non-governmental organization, Sou da Paz, Carolina Ricardo, told news portal UOL that the recent spate of bank robberies are largely well-planned operations, with the robbers making sure to make off with as much money as possible. More than 500 million reais ($94 million) have been stolen from banks across Brazil in the last five years, according to UOL.
Bank robberies in São Paulo increased by 44 percent in 2020 when compared to the previous year, according to data from Brazil’s Secretariat of Public Security (Secretaria da Segurança Pública – SSP). In 2019, there were 16 robberies, whereas in 2020 there were 23 – almost 2 every month.
Some experts have said that the growing wave of heists is part of a phenomenon known as “New Cangaço,” which harks to the banditry that plagued Brazil in the 1920s. The crimes are characterized by their levels of violence and coordination. Authorities believe that Brazil’s most powerful criminal organization, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), could be behind many of the attacks.