International police sting with 800 arrests has roots in Metro Vancouver

A major international police operation that saw 800 suspects rounded up in countries around the world began as an offshoot of a joint RCMP-FBI investigation into a Richmond company called Phantom Secure.

In 2019, 41-year-old Vincent Ramos, of Richmond, received a nine-year prison sentence in a San Diego courtroom after pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy for providing encrypted smartphones to criminal organizations, including Hells Angels in Australia and drug cartels in Mexico.

As that investigation unfolded, the FBI recruited a Phantom Secure collaborator to develop and distribute another secure messaging platform to the criminal underworld.

What the organized crime groups did not know is that all of the communications they thought were encrypted and private were actually being routed to the FBI and Australian police.

"They openly marketed them to other potential users as designed by criminals, for criminals, but the devices were actually operated by the FBI,” said Randy Grossman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Over 18 months, law enforcement intercepted millions of messages related to drug smuggling, human trafficking and murder-for-hire. The investigation, which culminated in the 800 recent arrests, was dubbed Operation Trojan Shield.

Richard Frank, head of Simon Fraser University’s International Cybercrime Research Centre, called the innovative FBI sting a first for law enforcement.

"It hasn't been done before as far as I know, so it was a really novel idea,” he said.

The RCMP acknowledge they worked with international police agencies on Operation Trojan Shield, but would not confirm if any arrests were made in Canada, or if any information gathered is being used in ongoing investigations.

“If you’re doing these types of activities, criminal activities, you should always be looking over your shoulder, because law enforcement is going to come up with something new next time around,” said Frank. “In this specific example, out of the people that could potentially be using it, I’m sure some are in Canada and eventually they will be identified.”

In addition to the arrests, police on multiple continents seized 32 tons of narcotics and nearly $150 million in cash and cryptocurrency. The operation is also credited with preventing 150 murders.

“We could arrest many of those who instigate murders,” said Linda H. Staaf, head of intelligence for Swedish police. “And for the first time in many years, we have seen a decrease in shootings and explosions in Sweden.”

With Operation Trojan Shield’s roots in Canada and RCMP acknowledging its involvement, people associated with organized crime groups in this country may now be looking over their shoulders.