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Project Chegando Junto: Boosting Scam Prevention in Brazil

Project Chegando Junto: Boosting Scam Prevention in Brazil with the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais

Contributors: Rafael Fernandes (MPMG & GASA Brazil), Anna Flávia Lehman, Sandra Helena Barbosa de Andrade (MPMG), and Sam Rogers (GASA).


Vienna International Centre, March 5, 2024, Conference Room No. 7, where a meeting is held on the Issue Paper on Organized Fraud, hosted by the UNODC's Global Programme on Implementing the Organized Crime Convention, with anti-fraud experts from more than fifteen countries, two of which are from Brazil.


During the meeting, the cell phone of one of the Brazilian participants rings with a supposed call from the Banco do Brasil call center. He shows the screen to his other Brazilian colleague in the meeting and comments: "Look at the scam!" Brazilian colleague, Prosecutor Rafael Fernandes, one of the authors of this article, responded to his colleague saying: "they tried the same scam on me last week".


Vienna International Centre, March 5, 2024, Conference Room No. 7. A meeting is held on the Issue Paper on Organized Fraud, hosted by the UNODC's Global Program on Implementing the Organized Crime Convention, with anti-fraud experts attending from more than fifteen countries, two of which are from Brazil.

The episode above, which occurred at a time when authorities around the world were discussing actions to improve the fight against fraud, is emblematic in showing the enormous proportion that these crimes took, as it shows the agility with which a fraud attempt crossed the Atlantic Ocean and, fortunately, targeted an authority from the Brazilian Federal Police, knowledgeable about the “modus operandi” of criminals.


The Rampant Exploitation of Ordinary Brazilian People

Unfortunately, the proliferation of scams around the world has reached a pandemic scale, harming millions of people, mostly ordinary individuals, who are easy targets for different types of fraud, unlike police agents or other authorities.


Cleberson Rosa dos Anjos, a driver who works at the Public Ministry of the State of Minas Gerais, was the target of a fake auction scam at the end of 2022. He fell into a trap when trying to purchase a used vehicle on a fake auction website.


On a beautiful morning in February this year, Mr. Cleberson took Prosecutor Rafael Fernandes to a work meeting and, after listening to the Prosecutor's conversation with a Police Chief about the high incidence of online scams and about strategies they could articulate to curb these crimes, he addressed the passenger and said: “Sir, it's impressive how many scams there are these days; I myself was a victim of the fake auction scam, when I tried to buy a car and ended up losing money.”


Cleberson Rosa dos Anjos, a driver who works at de Public Ministry of the State of Minas Gerais, was targeted by scammers.
Cleberson Rosa dos Anjos, a driver who works at the Public Ministry of the State of Minas Gerais, was targeted by scammers.
Cleberson found an advertisement for an auction company and accessed its website, which appeared to be legitimate.
Cleberson paid a seemingly legitimate website for a car that he never received.

The scam victim lost US$5,800 bidding on a car on a fake auction website. This was equivalent to 10 months of salary and 8 years of savings.

In the specific case discussed with the Prosecutor, the driver reported searching for car auctions on the internet using a popular search engine. He found an advertisement for an auction company and accessed its website, which appeared to be legitimate.


He later paid R$29.000,00 (US$5,800) for a car at auction, which was never delivered, resulting in a loss equivalent to 10 months' salary. This value represented the savings of 8 years of work with the aim of purchasing a newer car.


In the context of a middle-income country like Brazil, where a large part of the population has a tight budget and struggles to pay all monthly expenses, the search for good opportunities for products and services at an affordable price is a great facilitator for the practice of scams, which in many cases exploit the economic vulnerability of the population.


Affordable price is a great facilitator for the practice of scams, which in many cases exploit the economic vulnerability of the population.
Affordable price is a great facilitator for the practice of scams, which in many cases exploit the economic vulnerability of the population.

In 2020 and 2021, even during the COVID pandemic, this scenario of economic vulnerability was even more accentuated, with a huge portion of the population in debt and with credit restrictions, a time when criminals took advantage to carry out the fake loan scam against thousands of victims throughout Brazil.


The criminals, acting with an organizational structure similar to that of a company, set up false credit companies, with all the appearance of regularly constituted companies, and used an effective advertising strategy, having hired advertisements for these “companies” on the “Google Ads” platform. ”, making the easy and quick credit advertisements offered to the public have a wide reach among the population.


Operation Saque Rápido: A Closer Look at Scam Operations and Law Enforcement Challenges

For months, every time an internet user searched for a loan or credit on the internet, using the search tool in question, advertisements for fake websites were one of the results found by citizens, and thousands of them ended up falling for the scam, after accessing the fraudulent websites scammers and contact the call center of these false companies, which advised victims to pay an advance fee to release the loan.


Acting in this way, as determined in 2021 by Operation Saque Rápido (Operation Quick Withdrawal) , launched by the Civil Police of the State of Paraná, located in the south of Brazil, criminals stole more than 30 million reais (US$6,000,000) from thousands of victims across the country, having invested more than 600 thousand reais (US$120,000) in Google Ads, to increase the visibility of their fake websites.


They therefore act with the victim's fragility, armed with information often obtained online, with apparent legitimacy and always asking for a prior deposit that would never be returned.


Chegando Junto: Digital Strategies, Anti-Fraud Campaigns, and Facing Public Sector Challenges

In mid-2021, given the extremely high incidence of these scams, the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais decided that, in addition to the classic activities to combat crime, it was necessary to reinforce prevention actions against this type of crime, in order to reduce the number of victims and the damage caused to the population.


The Chegando Junto Project (The Coming Together Project) was born, with the vision that it was necessary to make the Public Ministry also occupy the digital space with the same ease as criminals, in order to establish a counterpoint to online scams and improve citizen protection in the virtual space.


It was therefore necessary to create guidance materials for citizens and ensure that such materials actually reach the population, through a digital promotion strategy with anti-fraud advertisements served on the Google platform, responsible for around 92% of internet searches carried out in Brazil.


Chegando Junto: Golpe do falso empréstimo

However, unlike the private sector, where buying ad space is a very quick process, the purchasing process in the public sector involves numerous formalities, requiring in-depth technical studies by the institution's purchasing sector in order to make the purchase of Google’s service viable, searches without intermediaries and the necessity of the bidding process. At the time, Federal Law 8,666 was observed, which, dated 1993, included a lot of bureaucracy, and did not keep up with the a rapid evolution of virtual crime after almost thirty years of existence.


After more than 8 months of studies and negotiations with Google, the contract with the aforementioned company was made possible and the start of the campaign to combat the false loan scam, the first in a series of campaigns that the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais plans to implement against online scams.


Results and Impact of the Minas Gerais Anti-Fraud Campaigns

The campaign had an initial budget of R$14.240,00 (US$ 2,848) and the contract with Google began execution on 03/29/2022, being in force until 11/02/2022, the period in which the advertisements against scams by the Public Prosecutor's Office of Minas Gerais (MPMG) were displayed as results of 577,000 loan searches carried out across the state, with 54,700 people clicking on MPMG's anti-fraud ads, having been immediately directed to the booklet with guidance against the fake loan scam, in the moment when they were potentially exposed to fraudulent content on the internet.


MPMG used a strategy of paid adverts that would be shown whenever someone searches for a loan on Google

 

The comparison of access to anti-fraud materials with the boosting strategy and without its use highlights the power of the strategy for information and crime prevention: in the 2 months prior to hiring Google, the booklet had only had 127 accesses, or just 2 per day; After boosting the booklet through Google Ads, with a reduced budget of just around R$65,00 (US$13) per day, the citizen guidance booklet reached an average of more than 220 views per day, at a cost of just R$0,26 (US$ $0.05) per booklet given to each citizen.

 

What's more: according to the Google Analytics tool, each citizen who accessed the MPMG booklet remained connected to the institution's website for 4 minutes and 5 seconds, a much longer time than estimated for reading the booklet, of around 1 minute, a fact that highlights that our target audience consumed the information intended for them, fulfilling the objective of increasing awareness against the scam.


Chegando Junto: the citizen guidance booklet reached an average of more than 220 views per day, at a cost of just R$0,26 (US$ $0.05) per booklet given to each citizen.

We understand that this is just a modest action among the large number of frauds that threaten our population daily. However, the data mentioned demonstrates the effectiveness of the adopted strategy as a significant resource in the fight against crime. This enables greater empowerment of citizens in the face of threats that spread in the virtual world.

 

Our strategy, recognized by the Global Anti-Scam Alliance as one of the best practices worldwide on the occasion of the 2023 Global Anti-Scam Summit in Lisbon, was consolidated in the institutional Strategic Planning as an initiative to be adopted on a permanent basis by the institution. An increase in the budget has already been assured, from R$15.000,00 (US$3,000) to R$50.000,00 (US$10,000), for new investments in more awareness campaigns against scams.


Ongoing Challenges and Future Directions for the Brazilian Battle Against Scams

A new phase of the project with Google began in 2023, but with new legal challenges to be overcome, as Brazilian legislation regarding purchasing in the public sector was modified with Law 14133/21, which required our purchasing department to define a new contractual model, which ended up delaying the start of the second phase of the project.

 

After months of intense work, it was possible to establish a new contract with Google, but, until March 2024, the start of its execution still remained suspended, as the company in question had not been able to present all the fiscal regularity documentation that would allow payment by the State of Minas Gerais.

 

These obstacles, unfortunately, highlight how bureaucratic the implementation of agile and innovative strategies can be within the public sector, but despite this, MPMG works tirelessly to overcome such challenges and consolidate this important action to reinforce prevention. The usual responses of the justice system are not sufficient to combat this type of crime, therefore new strategies are required to protect Brazil´s internet users.

 

In fact, information obtained by the MPMG in October 2023 reveals that the investigation conducted in the State of Paraná, in the context of Operation Saque Rápido, launched in 2021, had not yet been closed, more than 2 years after the preventive arrest of some members of the criminal organization, which highlights the difficulties of the state law enforcement in relation to elucidation and criminal liability of the perpetrators of these crimes.

 

It is worth noting that Mr. Cleberson, before purchasing the car through the fraudulent auction company, took the precaution of consulting a lawyer friend, who checked the website and advised him to close the deal, as they did not identify any irregularities. During the interview for this article, when informed by Prosecutor Rafael Fernandes that the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais is planning to launch campaigns on Google Ads against the fake auction scam, Cleberson also mentioned: "Well, Sir, if at that time we had an MPMG announcement warning about these fake auction scams, I probably wouldn't have been fooled."

Scam victim said: "if at that time we had an MPMG announcement warning about these fake auction scams, I probably wouldn't have been fooled."

We believe that deterring criminal conduct is fully in line with the ideals of Sustainable Development Goal 16, of the United Nations, which advocates the building of effective and responsible institutions, capable of fostering peace and mitigating conflicts and social disparities.

 

Only with this information and empowerment measures will stories like Cleberson's unfold differently, elevating the consumer to a state of discernment for informed choices.

 

Stories like this inspire us to constantly seek to improve our fraud suppression and prevention actions, clearly demonstrating that initiatives such as the one currently implemented by MPMG are essential to help reduce the severity of the problem. This not only aims to reduce the staggering statistics related to online fraud, but more importantly to positively impact our community.


Headquarters of Conselho Nacional do Ministério Público, in Brasília

 

Furthermore, we strongly believe that, to combat a problem of such magnitude, it is essential to work in a network, a context in which public-private partnerships are fundamental for the development of more agile action strategies, which is why the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais signed a letter of intention with the Global Anti-Scam Alliance in this major international effort against scams.

 

This partnership has already started to generate results, with the launch of the Brazil Chapter of GASA, with the holding of an online event that included the participation of important actors in the fight against scams in Brazil, having also contributed to increasing the importance of confronting the scams on the national public security agenda, as, following the GASA Brazil event, the National Council of the Public Ministry decided to hold an event dedicated to combating online scams in May, in Brasília, with broadcast throughout the country.

 

This way, the debate tends to be more present, turning this fragmented scenario into a more cohesive plan, at a national... or global level.


About the Authors

Rafael Henrique Martins Fernandes, MPMG

Public Prosecutor at the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais (MPMG) since 2001, serving as the Coordinator of the Institutional Planning Coordination (COPLI) since 2021 and as the Interim Coordinator of the Institutional Intelligence and Security Office (GSI). Additionally, acting as the Coordinator of the Anti-Robbery Strategic Intervention Group (GIE-Roubos) in Belo Horizonte since 2020, with involvement in the group since 2017. Holds a degree in Law from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) and specialized in State Intelligence and Public Security Intelligence from the Fundação Escola Superior do MPMG and Centro Universitário Newton Paiva. Completed an extension course in Criminal Law at Tor Vergata University, Rome. Noteworthy for the "Chegando Junto" Project, aimed at combating electronic fraud, acknowledged by the Global Anti Scam Alliance during the Global Anti-Scam Summit in Lisbon in 2023 as a leading global scam prevention initiative. A member of the Global Anti-Scam Alliance through the Letter of Intent signed between MPMG and the aforementioned international entity. Recognized with the J.Ex Innovation Award in the 2023

edition, under the "Innovation Executive" category for Public Ministries and Audit Courts. Contributed to a UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) working meeting in Vienna in 2024, invited by UNODC to assist in the development of the Issue Paper on Organized Fraud, a collaborative effort involving experts worldwide to enhance the global fight against online scams.


Sandra Helena Barbosa de Andrade, MPMG

Sandra Helena Barbosa de Andrade is a distinguished legal professional with a robust academic background and extensive experience in the public sector. She holds a postgraduate degree in Social Law from ANAMAGES (2007) and Public Law from Gama Filho University (2003), as well as a Law degree from Milton Campos Law School (1998).

Sandra’s career in the Public Ministry of the State of Minas Gerais began in 2003, where she has served with dedication and excellence. Her roles have included Legal Analyst (2003-present), Contracts and Agreements Coordinator (2004-2009), Human Resources Superintendent (2009-2013), Administrative Advisor (2013-2017), and currently, she serves as the Advisor to the Planning and Coordination Superintendence. With a strong skill set in leadership, personnel management, and legal composition, Sandra has made significant contributions to her field. In addition to her professional accomplishments, she is a chemistry technique enthusiast, a devoted wife, and mother. Sandra is also an avid reader, continuously seeking knowledge and growth in both her personal and professional life.


Anna Flávia Lehman, MPMG

Anna Flávia Lehman is a highly accomplished legal expert with a distinguished academic and professional background. She graduated with a Law degree from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and has pursued advanced studies with postgraduate qualifications in Public Law and a master’s degree in Tax Law. Since September 2002, Anna has been an integral part of the Public Ministry, where she has demonstrated exceptional skill and dedication. Her roles have included serving in various advisory capacities, as the Human Resources Superintendent, and currently as the Planning and Coordination Superintendent.

Anna is a proud mother and a pet owner. Outside of her professional commitments, she enjoys traveling, reading, cinema, and socializing. Anna is a proponent of adaptable management, valuing foresight and flexibility as key components of effective leadership. Her dynamic approach and commitment to excellence make her a valuable asset to the Public Ministry and her community.


Sam Rogers, Global Anti-Scam Alliance (GASA)

Sam Rogers is the Director of Marketing at the Global Anti-Scam Alliance. He previously worked on ethics monitoring for inter-firm transactions, as well as Equity Capital Markets for the Risk Advisory division at Deloitte, in his native United Kingdom, where he honed his skills in project support, business development, and financial analysis. Later, Sam pursued a new career in marketing following his emigration to the Netherlands. He worked initially as a copywriter specialized in semiconductor technology, photonics, and the applications of electromagnetic radiation, before moving into content and marketing management during his time at the Japanese industrial giant, Ushio. At GASA, Sam is responsible for strategizing and implementing marketing activities, building relationships within the network, and amplifying GASA's impact through engaging communications about scams and anti-scam efforts. His work includes the annual publication of the "State of Scams" reports, as GASA conducts extensive research on scams in over 45 countries, organizing the Global Anti-Scam Summit (GASS), and networking with likeminded professionals to build the anti-scam army needed to fight scams on a global scale.

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