LONDON (Reuters) - Anti-fraud police have arrested 110 people in Europe and the United States in an international crackdown on gangs selling bogus shares that cost some investors their life savings, British authorities said on Friday.
City of London Police, responsible for law enforcement in the British capital's financial district, said the arrests, made in a series of raids this week, arose out of a two-year investigation into "boiler room" operations believed to be responsible for millions of pounds of investment fraud.
Boiler rooms consist of teams of young men cold-calling potential investors offering them worthless, overpriced or even non-existent shares using high-pressure sales techniques.
Codenamed Operation Rico, the investigation led to 84 arrests in Spain, 20 in Britain, four in Serbia and two in the United States, with most of those arrested on suspicion of money laundering and fraud, City of London police said.
It prompted the closure of what are believed to be 14 boiler rooms in Spain, two in Britain and one in Serbia with goods worth over 500,000 pounds ($836,500) seized including Aston Martin and Mustang cars, designer clothes, watches and cash.
City of London Police commander Steve Head said the network was believed to have had upwards of 1,000 victims, and the arrests highlighted how law enforcement can work globally to find suspected criminals seeking shelter in other countries.
"It is our most important investigation ever, targeting people we believe are at the top of an organized crime network that has been facilitating boiler rooms across Europe and which is suspected of being responsible for millions of pounds of investment fraud," he said in a statement.
Head said City of London Police investigations had produced numerous prosecutions in recent years where organized crime gangs were found to be running boiler rooms, mainly in Spain.
The Serbian public prosecutor's office said police in the Balkan republic arrested two Britons and a Moroccan on Wednesday for suspected fraud, money laundering and illegal production and selling of opiates.
Boiler room schemes promise high returns and may initially offer dividends but those who invest, often the elderly and vulnerable, usually end up losing their money, and some have seen their life savings evaporate.
The investigation began in 2012 with the City of London Police and Spain's Policia Nacional examining reports of investors worldwide being sold bogus shares in carbon credits, gold, renewable energy, forestry, eco projects, wine and land.
In the last year of the investigation, British police froze 1.5 million pounds ($2.5 million) in British bank accounts believed to contain proceeds from boiler room activity.
"Many investors had suffered devastating financial losses and emotional distress," the police statement said.
Britain's Financial Conduct Authority has estimated that as much as 200 million pounds is lost to boiler room fraud in Britain each year, and it receives 5,000 calls a year from people who think they are victims of share fraud.
($1=0.5974 British pounds)
Reporting by Julia Fioretti in London and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Mark Heinrich