Ukraine fails to tackle fraudulent call centers



More than 18 months after massive exposure in international media, Ukraine’s dubious call centers – including one in the heart of Kiev – continue to operate with impunity.

Many people would say that the center of Kiev is the worst part of the Ukrainian capital.

Downtown, across from the historic Bessarabian Market, is the Mandarin Plaza Shopping Center, which sums up why many feel this way.

At one end, it’s filled with high-end luxury fashion boutiques, catering to the upper crust of Ukraine. At the other end is Arena City, a courtyard full of bars, a few chain restaurants, at least two strip clubs, a brothel, and – surprisingly enough – offices.

At different times of the day, the courtyard is filled with workers from these offices – mostly young people from all over the world, from places as far apart as Ecuador and Pakistan.

They work for what is possibly the biggest fraudulent call center in Ukraine.

All of this came to light in March last year when a massive operation by 20 media outlets, including The Times of Israel, Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter and the NGO OCCRP, exposed the widespread fraud occurring almost openly to the heart. of a European capital.

The company involved has been identified as the Milton Group. A whistleblower working for them approached Swedish media after being horrified by the kind of work they did – Dagens Nyheter fitted him with a hidden camera to record what is happening.

Others are also ready to share their experience of working for the company.

Yuri, who requested that his last name be kept private, underwent “training” shortly before the briefing last March. He describes how, from the start, something has gone wrong.

“I did the interview, which lasted about two minutes. And I saw that the desk looked a bit odd, like they were actively trying to look like a respectable desk instead of just being. It sounded like the idea of ​​an office made by someone who had never worked in a real one.

Yuri then describes how he “trained” for a week. The “instructor” handed out brochures and explained that the job would be to call “clients” and offer them the opportunity to invest in cryptocurrencies and similar products. Yuri’s suspicions really started to be piqued when the instructor explained how their service – known as TitanPro500 – was not subject to financial regulator accreditation as it is “decentralized,” and explained that to “customers”.

“They then gave us tactics to keep people from doubting us. They said to keep talking, not to give the client enough time to think.

According to Yuri, the instructor even showed clips from Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street – about Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street broker who made money by fraudulently selling penny stocks – as an example of how to get on with it. behaving on the phone with “clients” (although the instructor pointed out that unlike him, Jordan Belfort was a con artist).

In addition, interns were asked to give their clients false western sounding names and say they were based in central London. “Everything about them is dishonest. They tell you to lie every step of the way, ”Yuri says Emerging europe.

‘It’s wrong’

Yuri left after completing a week’s training and pocketing the promised 500 hryvnia. At this point he said he was “completely convinced that they were doing something illegal and that I had made the right decision not to work for them. There are many types of jobs that I am willing to do, but I can’t fool people. It’s wrong.”

However, not everyone has the same principles as Yuri. Dozens, if not hundreds, of people continue to work at the call center. A quick search of the Ukrainian job boards and will yield many results for positions such as “sales manager” and “retention manager”, offering very generous salaries – the attached “companies” to these job postings usually have some sort of generic name.

If they have a website, it’s full of stock images and meaningless buzzwords, giving no information on what the company is actually doing.

And while they have generic names and different websites, they all lead back to Mandarin Plaza and Arena City.

The briefing last March identified the director of the company as Jacob Keselman. It is not known what nationality he holds, but his social media profiles show that Russian is his mother tongue, that he studied in Kiev and worked in Israel for a few years. On his now-deactivated Instagram account, he introduced himself as “The Wolf of Kiev”, a direct reference to the Scorsese film, and regularly posted photos of himself driving luxury cars at upscale vacation destinations like Dubai and Monaco.

Contacted by media investigators, Keselman claimed that some “customers” lose money because “they don’t understand how [investment] work.”

However, reading the heartbreaking interviews with the victims of the crooks shows that this was certainly not the case. Dagens Nyheter spoke to several Swedish victims – mostly elderly people living in provincial towns and rural areas – and the stories are surprisingly similar.

Many involve a “trader” named “William Bradley” – who was later revealed to be an Iranian student living in Kiev. Secret video taken by Milton group whistleblower shows ‘William Bradley’ wishing one of his victims a happy new year, before hanging up and bragging about how the elderly Swede gave him around 150,000 U.S. dollars.

Additionally, the company emails leaked by the whistleblower show the utter disregard that crooks have for their victims. A note about a client casually mentions how he lost 400,000 (it’s unclear what currency) and now lives with a friend, with no resources.

Business as usual

Now, more than 18 months since all of this was exposed, Milton Group – or whatever its official name is – seems to be operating normally. While the Swedish government has called on Ukrainian authorities to take action, it appears that nothing substantial has been done.

Milton Group is just one of the many scam call centers in Ukraine. Every month or so, the police publish photos, in which they are armed to the teeth with equipment more suited to counterterrorism operations, closing call centers, usually outside Kiev.

However, many believe that these are symbolic gestures.

According to an employee of the Dnipro-based company NGO Anti-Corruption Human Rights Council, who wished to remain anonymous, these call centers began to appear in large numbers around 2014.

“They are drawn to the lower costs. SIM cards, laptops, real estate, workers – it’s all cheaper here. ”

When asked why these are so prevalent in Ukraine, why authorities are slow to act, and why Operation Arena City is still openly taking place more than 18 months after being exposed by international media, he said that ‘It is difficult for the police to prove guilt in such cases.

“They can’t just come in and investigate, without a court warrant. If they were just trying to come in and ask questions, they will be told to leave, as our constitution protects private property and businesses from such state interference. Even though they have a warrant, such operations are easy to disguise and difficult to trace – they undoubtedly use VPNs, for example.

The Georgian Connection

However, last March’s briefing may also reveal other reasons for the lack of action. The whistleblower attended a lavish New Year’s party hosted by the owners of the company, celebrating $ 65 million in sales. Footage from the party shows Jacob Keselman presenting another man, David Todua, a Georgian-Israeli citizen, as the “father” of the Milton group.

According to the whistleblower, Todua is a regular visitor to the call center, always traveling with several bodyguards. The OCCRP discovered that Todua had close ties to figures from the United National Movement of Georgia, founded by former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Todua’s business partner in two companies registered in Ukraine is Davit Kezerashvili, former defense minister in Saakashvili’s government and, ironically, former Georgian financial police chief. One of them, Project Partners, is based in a building next to Mandarin Plaza and is headed by Gia Getsadze, former deputy justice minister of Georgia and Ukraine.

Project Partners is also a co-owner of a construction company, Elitekomfortbud, run by a former Georgian agriculture minister from Saaksashvili, Petre Tsiskarishvili.

Although the OCCRP has found no evidence linking any of these former ministers directly to the call center, at the very least, it does establish that David Todua, the “father” of Milton Group, is indeed linked to powerful personalities.

The crooks have now reached people in more than 50 countries, including poorer places like Lesotho, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, but it’s unclear exactly how Ukrainian authorities can tackle the problem.

Nonetheless, it damages Ukraine’s international image and European aspirations that more than 18 months after the scam was exposed by some of the world’s most prestigious media, the Ukrainian government has taken no action.

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