It is literally impossible to get an online appointment (cita previa) in most of the country, for any administrative tasks you might need. And, now, you are about to finally find out why.
The National Police has dismantled a criminal network that through bots managed to make obtaining the online appointment in Spain almost impossible. The ring collapsed the online system of “cita previa” on Immigration site, monopolized all available appointments and resold them to the desperate people willing to pay up to €300 for the service which is free.
The police operation has resulted in 69 arrests and a further investigation in additional 25 people throughout the country, seven of them in the province of Alicante. The group was responsible for creating and using computer bots that carried out repetitive and automated tasks that allowed them to circumvent security filters to get every single available online appointment in the system.
According to the news, the operation was centered in Alicante. One of those arrested in this city is thought to be the mastermind, and he was running the scheme through his company. During the search, a computer was discovered with several open browser tabs connected to the electronic headquarters’ online appointment page. Another opened window contained a spreadsheet that was automatically and remotely modified, and its purpose was to distribute the appointments.
Obtaining an online appointment through the Extranjeria and other government portals had become nearly impossible for many citizens and professionals. Procedures like requesting asylum, writing letters of invitation for other relatives to visit Spain, obtaining an NIE, or simply renovating the documents were completely inaccessible.
There was a rumor that these appointments were released at a specific time of day, and an army of desperate people would swarm the government websites every morning at 8:30 a.m. to obtain one. Normally, this would cause the system to crash, and only a few lucky people would receive the online appointment for that day.
Getting an online appointment has become unattainable, and many people have been unable to regulate their status, renew their documents, and some even become illegal in the country as a result of this process. To anyone who could afford to laugh, Spain’s online appointment system has become on par with systems in the most underdeveloped countries.
Looking at the problem, the Police suspected that there could be an organized network or a hacker behind everything. The appointments, which are free and for accessible, were resold on the black market at prices ranging between 30 and 200 euros while at the same time, people were faced with the impossibility of being able to get the online appointment.
The investigation was coordinated by agents of the Central Unit of Illegal Immigration Networks and Documentary Falsifications (UCRIF) , and initiated by the Provincial Immigration and Border Brigade of Valencia after a technical report from the Central Cybercrime Unit of the General Police Station judicial.
Agents specialising in cybercrime launched a series of investigations, assisted by several Provincial Immigration Brigades in Spain, in an attempt to solve the problem. Police investigations uncovered a criminal network that employed a computer bot designed to perform repetitive, predefined, and automated tasks. The bot was able to obtain almost every single online appointment required to carry out mandatory immigration procedures across the entire country.
As a result, the bot rendered the system inoperable for users, disrupting normal access to a free public service provided by the National Police, which is solely responsible for carrying out immigration procedures throughout the country.
Foreign citizens requesting an online appointment were therefore forced to resort to alternatives and contact the bot’s owners or intermediaries, asking for help and in exchange paying between 30 and 200 euros.
The computer bot developed by the criminal network had the ability to avoid the security mechanisms installed on the web, even being able to circumvent the so-called “captcha” aimed at detecting the presence of this type of computer program. The leaders of the organization instructed the intermediaries on the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection , to hide the real IP address of the intermediary.
This way, they had the possibility of accessing a greater number of appointments, since this system automatically changed the IP address , preventing the server from blocking the intermediary due to excessive requests for prior appointments.
In the first phase of the investigation, the Police has taken a huge amount of statements, started checking bank accounts, and carried out four searches. Four people were also arrested in Valencia and Barcelona, and, a large number of computers, documentation and €200.000 in cash were seized.
After the first step, a further inquiry tried to take down the whole network – people who served as intermediaries, the company that “rented” these bot services, and anybody who was making money in this venture. The action resulted in discovering a huge network of individuals connected to this operation, and there is a good chance that the list will grow.
The investigation also made it possible to locate several commercial contracts between the intermediaries and the main organisers for the provision of online bot services. In these contracts they were calling themselves “file managers”, and presenting themselves as the owners of this “digital resource”. They presented themselves as owners of the “digital resource” .
The service provided was caled “robot rental”. The police also discovered a huge number of intermediaries in this process, who made money by selling the immigration appointments and dealing directly to the desperate customers, unable to obtain an online appointment by themselves. The most desperate were people who intended to apply for asylum and had no other option than to resort to paying to get an appointment.
The group of intermediaries, also had lawyers, company owners, immigration advisers and and even job recruiters involved. It is without the doubt, that everybody involved was aware that this was a type of fraud, directed at the foreigners, on many occasions, in the situation of great vulnerability and despair.
To be able to participate, each intermediary had its own license (password). This license gave them access to a spreadsheet, where they could fill in the data of people that paid for the online appointment.
This sheet, once completed, was feed directly to the bot so that it can automatically fill in the information once the appointments were released. The handling of data by the intermediaries also allowed the choice of the province and the immigration procedure to be carried out.
The bot was able to detected the moment in which appointments were released in the different provinces and took most of them by having the data preloaded and being programmed 24 hours a day . This way, the whole system was compromised and the normal people unable to obtain the appointment.
The police investigation is still ongoing, and many more arrests are possible. But it’s unclear whether this will free the system. Obtaining an online appointment was nearly impossible, but those who did were given a chance to submit their documents at least two, if not three, months later. This demonstrates another issue: there aren’t enough people in the administration to deal with the submissions, and taking down the criminal ring may do little or nothing to alleviate the situation.
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