An organised group of criminals based in East Asia have defrauded job seekers in the UK and worldwide after getting a scam app on to both the Google and Apple app stores.
Working with victims who have tried to track down their scammers, Sky News has learnt they were operating from Cambodia, the Philippines and China, despite claiming to be a legitimate business based in the UK.
Using an app called New Century, which described itself as "an e-commerce order negotiation platform with millions of members", the scammers try to lure people to pay into cryptocurrency and British bank accounts, promising payouts – but those payouts are never delivered.
Victims locked out of accounts
One victim from outside of the UK who spoke to Sky News explained how he had fallen for the scam by responding to a public message on Facebook after losing work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mamoon Rasheed invested more than £200 into the app but was only ever able to withdraw £30 using the cryptocurrency USDT. Although Mr Rasheed has attempted to withdraw more, the app displayed his withdrawal as "pending" for more than two weeks.
After complaining, Mr Rasheed found that he was locked out of his account, and presented with a "connection failed" message when he tried to log in again. No connection error was encountered when he attempted to register a new account, nor does this error appear when incorrect details are entered at the login screen.
Fraudsters using British banks
Sky News has observed more than a dozen business accounts registered with British banks used by the app, which regularly changes which account users are encouraged to deposit funds into.
New Century claimed to be part of British marketing agency the Ogilvy Group, but a spokesperson for Ogilvy told Sky News: "Our agency's name has been used fraudulently and we are taking action with the relevant authorities."
According to business registry data collected by Companies House, the businesses behind these accounts have almost all been registered in the UK this year by people who have declared their nationality to be either Chinese or Nepalese.
No contact details exist for these companies other than their registered office addresses. One of them shares this address with a Chinese restaurant in Manchester, while another gave its address as a residential building in east London.
Nobody answered the door when Sky News visited the east London address, where a neighbour described the occupants as Chinese and Pakistani men who worked in construction.
Operated from East Asia
The cryptocurrency addresses that the app has used have received the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the USDT token transferred over both the Ethereum and Tron blockchains.
Different recruiter accounts on Facebook have posted identical messages to groups for job seekers in major British cities, offering opportunities to job seekers to earn "extra income" and inviting victims to contact them using UK mobile numbers.
One member of the community investigating the scam was able to convince the operators of two of these accounts to visit a webpage from which they were able to identify the operators' IP addresses, finding in both cases that they were connecting from East Asia rather than their stated locations.
Organised criminal network
Under its own brand and using these recruiter identities, New Century runs multiple WhatsApp accounts to engage with potential victims and has responded to messages at all hours of the day, indicating that there are multiple individuals involved in running the scam.
Sky News has observed recruitment taking place both on Facebook's main platform as well as in WhatsApp groups.
A spokesperson for Facebook told Sky News: "Our teams have investigated these pages and groups brought to our attention, and have removed any that violate our guidelines."
A number of accounts and the main New Century page on Facebook, which had more than 30,000 likes and follows, was removed after Sky News shared Ogilvy's complaint with the social media platform.
App rebranded as scam continues
The app has been available in various forms on both the Google Play and Apple App Store for several months.
A spokesperson for Apple told Sky News the app was removed in June, though we were able to download it in late July. The company declined to comment when asked to clarify this point.
A spokesperson for Google told Sky News they had removed the app, but Sky News was still able to find a version of it on Google Play. The company added that it does not provide statements in individual cases of app removal.
The New Century website and the app have now been taken offline, but the criminals have rebranded the app as "A Platform" and relaunched it, this time claiming to an Amazon subsidiary.
Amazon has confirmed it has no connection to the business.