One hundred ninety-three individuals suspected of traveling with airline tickets bought using stolen, compromised or fake credit card details have been detained in a major international law enforcement operation targeting airline fraudsters. Forty-three countries, 75 airlines and eight online travel agencies were involved in this global operation, which took place at 189 airports across the world in mid-October.

The airline industry is estimated to lose more than $1 billion per year as a result of the fraudulent online purchases of flight tickets. Fraudulent online transactions are highly lucrative for organized crime and are often purchased to facilitate more serious criminal activities including illegal immigration, human trafficking, drug smuggling and terrorism.

The fifth Global Airport Action Day was organized through coordination centers at Europol in The Hague, INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore and Ameripol in Bogota, and was supported by Canadian and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Representatives from airlines, online travel agencies, payment card companies, Perseuss and the International Air Transport Association worked together with experts from Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre to identify suspicious transactions and provide confirmation to law enforcement officers deployed in the airports. Eurojust assisted throughout the action week, together with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), which deployed officers to 20 airports, assisting in the detection of identity fraud, fake documents and irregular migration.

For the first time, this global operation lasted for five consecutive days. Law enforcement is now tackling this international phenomenon on a daily basis in close cooperation with the private sector. This has enhanced the trust between all involved parties and will continue to inflict damage to the criminals involved in airline ticket fraud.

During the operation, 350 suspicious transactions were reported. As a result, 193 people were detained, denied boarding, questioned by police and charged criminally. Investigations are ongoing. Several people were caught trying to traffic drugs from Latin America to Europe, frequently flying back and forth using fraudulently purchased tickets.

Crime-as-a-Service, the recent trend in all forms of serious organized crime, has now also appeared in the travel sector. Law enforcement has targeted fake online travel agencies, specializing in purchasing airline tickets with stolen or fake credit card details for other criminals, providing them a service. One criminal enterprise offered financial services, fraudulently purchased tickets and fake documents. During the action several bookings for different destinations were linked to the same criminal organization.

The use of compromised credit card details is an increasingly high volume crime, with tens of thousands of criminal complaints in many EU countries. An increase in Card-Not-Present (CNP) fraud is apparent across almost all sectors; the purchases of physical goods, airline tickets, car rentals and accommodation with compromised cards has seen a significant increase throughout the EU. Airline companies are among the most affected by CNP fraud.

“We cannot allow anyone, in particular serious criminals and terrorists, to travel around the world anonymously and to endanger others,” said Europol’s Director Rob Wainwright. “The digital underground is underpinned by a mature Crime-as-a-Service model which continues to provide tools and services to people with criminal motivation. Together with our private partners we need to further extend these successful initiatives targeting fraud in the airline industry, fighting them on a daily basis, to make life as hard as possible for criminals.”