Swiss media stories among targets of ‘digital hitman’ company

Some articles published online by Swiss media outlets, including the SBC and 24 Heures, have been deleted or made invisible by Eliminalia, a Swiss-based e-reputation company that provides its services to criminals and corrupt politicians, a disinformation investigation has found.

a person's hands are seen typing on a laptop
Digital reputation firm Eliminalia uses various techniques to remove genuine articles or make them invisible, including posting positive articles under fake online media names. Photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Journalists at French Swiss broadcaster RTS had sight of confidential documents that showed that thousands of investigative reports published by media outlets around the world had disappeared.

Eliminalia’s promise is: “We eliminate your past. We help you with your future.”

The e-reputation leader has three offices in Switzerland and further outposts all over the world, totalling around a dozen.

The company states that it uses legal methods to erase photos or negative comments and that its clients are victims of “unjustified’ online attacks, but according to RTS, the reality is very different.

The list of Eliminalia’s clients seen by RTS, one of 30 media firms taking part in a global disinformation campaign piloted by France’s Forbidden Stories, includes convicted sex traffickers, as well as fraudsters, money launderers and arms dealers, and even former Chilean torturers.

The company has more than 1,500 clients around the world, including 43 in Switzerland, RTS reports.

Several are Italian nationals living in Ticino who have paid to clear their mafia business names in Italy so they can build new businesses.

Other Swiss clients are involved in tax evasion or cryptocurrency scams. There’s even a circus performer who was recently convicted of sexual assault on a minor.

Those looking to clear their name online will need to pay Eliminalia from CHF 5,000 up to several hundred thousand Swiss francs.

A service for organised crime

According to digital law expert and lawyer Sebastien Fanti, the EU’s “right to be forgotten” rule can sometimes be justified.

People can legitimately request that websites or search engines remove certain information about them, depending on how serious this information is and when it dates back to.  

“A youthful mistake or a teenager’s stupidity should not follow a person all his or her life on the internet,” he told RTS. 

“With Eliminalia, it’s not about the right to be forgotten. This company erases the investigative work of journalists, it erases the truth. This company is a digital hitman,” he added. 

Eliminalia says it is able to erase any online newspaper article. Indeed, the confidential documents seen by the investigating journalists show that articles from Swiss media, such as, the SBC, and 24 Heures, as well as other outlets like Le Monde and Vice News, have disappeared.

How do they do it?

Computer scientists use various techniques to delete the articles or make them invisible. One of these is the so-called “drowning” technique, which involves using more than 600 fake online media, with names such as CNN News Today or London Uncensored, to post positive articles about Eliminalia clients.

These fake articles then appear at the top of a Google search with the real ones ‘drowned’ out, i.e. pushed to the back of Google’s results list.

Eliminalia also uses a technique that de-indexes articles by abusing the copyright declaration system set up by Google, Twitter and Facebook. It clones negative articles about Eliminalia clients, changes the date of the article and makes a copyright infringement claim.

This sleight-of-hand trick means they can de-index the genuine articles, making them invisible.

The company also uses hackers who erase documents or specific articles at the source. RTS said this information came from a Spanish security service source, but that the investigative team had not found any proof that a major European media outlet had been attacked in this way, 

Eliminalia did not respond to Forbidden Stories’ and RTS’ requests for comment, but they did threaten legal action via a letter from a French law firm.

Furthermore, despite founder Diego Sanchez’ past involvement in the trade of surrogate mothers, which attracted negative reporting, there are only positive articles and videos about him online now.

This is presumably because the wealthy entrepreneur has used his company’s services to clean up his own past, RTS suggested. 

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The common scams foreigners in Switzerland need to be aware of

Scammers use every trick imaginable to find their prey. But you should use your common sense to avoid falling victim to these — and other — fraudulent schemes that have been circulating in Switzerland.

The common scams foreigners in Switzerland need to be aware of

Before we get to some of the hundreds of scams that have been reported in Switzerland — the National Centre for Cybersecurity (NCSC), which regularly publishes statistics on this phenomenon in Switzerland, records no less than 542 scams each week — let’s look at what the general characteristics of a typical fraud are, so your inner alarm goes off when you receive one.

The first sign that should make you suspicious is that an unknown person contacts you (by email, social media, messaging service, phone, or carrier pigeon) with a ‘fantastic’ offer promising you great deals or great profits.

While some unsolicited calls are legitimate, many aren’t. If the offer sounds too good (or too ludicrous) to be true — like the famous one where you get a call from the Nigerian royal family offering you their riches —  it probably is too good or too ludicrous, especially if it requires you to part with your money in order to reap benefits. 

It’s true that it is not always easy to spot scammers, especially as many emails look like they come from official sources like the government or police (read more about this below), but neither would contact you by email and threaten you with terrible consequences if you don’t pay up.

If not sure about the legitimacy of ‘official’ email or message, always call the supposed sender to check.

These are some of the scams you should be aware of:

Employment scam

The scammers are currently contacting their victims via messaging services such as Whatsapp and Telegram, presenting themselves as job recruiters who seek people in Switzerland who can work from home.

So far it sounds legitimate, except that “candidates are lured by promises of extraordinary earnings that are disproportionately high relative to the nature of the tasks to be performed,” according to the NCSC.

Problems begin after recruitment, when candidates are directed to a platform where they must register to obtain assignments. “It is an imitation of a legitimate website,” explains the federal authority.

All salary and bonus payments must be settled via this fake platform and recruited workers must pay most of the fees themselves.

Housing scam

Housing scams consist of posting an advert on various specialised websites.

It offers accommodation in a great location at a reasonable price. Beautiful photos show a high-end accommodation and lure the victim.

At the time of worsening housing shortage and high rents, this kind of offer sounds very enticing.

During the first contact with the alleged owner or official representative, this person explains that the accommodation is unoccupied and available immediately, but that it is impossible for them to be present due to a business trip.

However, this person requests by return email a copy of identity documents, income certificates, as well as other personal information.

Subsequently, this person asks for a payment via a money transfer company (in most cases, Western Union), assuring that upon receipt of funds, they will send the keys to the accommodation in question.

Of course, the keys will never be sent, because the property in question doesn’t exist. But it could also be a real property which is for sale or rent for a much higher price, and whose images have been stolen.

Don’t believe that this apartment is cheap and available. Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Some of the scammers are so bold, they pretend to be government agencies:

Immigration scam

According to State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), more and more foreigners are receiving emails with the senders swissimmigration@consultant  or eu_immigration@consultant who pretend to be a Swiss immigration authority.

“In most cases, a fictitious job in the hotel industry is offered, with the senders demanding payment of 300 to 1,000 euros for a permit in Switzerland and for health and accident insurance.”

The first clue that this email doesn’t come from the SEM, which is a Swiss government authority, is that it is asking for payment in euros. If the scammers were smarter, they’d demand Swiss francs.

“These e-mails do not come from the SEM and should be considered as an attempt at fraud,” the agency said. 

Customs scam

More and more private individuals and businesses are receiving “phishing” messages in which fraudsters request payment using the name of the Federal Office for Customs and Border Security (FOCBS)

“The recipients supposedly need to transfer money in order to receive a package they have ordered. It can also happen that the fraudsters call beforehand and pretend to be customs agents,” FOCBS reports.  

The current phishing e-mails often feature [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected] as the sender.

“In light of this, the FOCBS would like to stress that it never sends payment requests by email or text message, nor contacts citizens or companies by telephone beforehand. It is therefore recommended that calls or messages of this kind be ignored and the messages deleted.  

Death threats

This is possibly the most frightening scam of all.

According to Tribune de Genève, which recently reported about this fraud, an email signed “Angel of death” or “Kill Angel” claims to carry out “all kinds of services related to organised crime”.

It then goes on to say that “a client contacted me with all your contact details and asked me to kill you.”

The author then says the recipient can pay them more money than the person who ordered the execution, so they abort their deadly mission.
The scammer is even ready to sell “all the information” about this mysterious sponsor who ordered the killing. 

It is easy to see how such an email would be upsetting but, again, don’t give in to this threat out of fear — which is exactly what this scammer is hoping for.

This is what you should know

These are just five of the scams you should be aware of (and ignore), but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

The website of Swiss Office of Crime Prevention (PSC)  lists dozens of such schemes, which have been perpetrated, more or less successfully, in Switzerland.

And yes, even the PSC fell victim to phishing. A message on its website says: “The Swiss Crime Prevention email address, telephone number and identity are currently being used fraudulently. We are not the sender of these emails. You can ignore and delete the emails you receive.”

Should you report scamming attempts to authorities?

The NCSC asks you to do so, as they keep track of and statistics on, such activities.

However, you are not obligated to do so.

The important thing is that you immediately delete any suspicious emails and block the sender from contacting you again.

Also, be vigilant about divulging any of your personal information and financial data to unknown callers, or individuals showing up at your door.