Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part blog post. You can find Part I here. The image above is from the 2024 theatrical release poster (Amazon MGM Studios).

Act II: The criminal organization

The filmmakers correctly portrayed the scam in The Beekeeper. Now, let’s look at the fictional criminal organization running it.

From real-life examples, we know there are often two separate but parallel organizations running these scams: one executing the scam and moving the money (the fraudsters) and the other receiving the money and getting it out of the financial system (the money launderers).

Sometimes, the same groups run both sides of the operation. In other cases, they are separate entities, as each have their own specialty and begrudgingly trust the other not to rip them off.

The Beekeeper blurs these lines and shows a single criminal organization, which is certainly plausible.

Criminal pyramidal structure

Without giving too much away, the criminal organization depicted in this movie is structured like a pyramid, which mirrors real criminal networks of both fraudsters and money launderers.

At the bottom of this pyramid are The workers. Above them is the management layer. The kingpin is at the top. We’ve observed this structure from both law enforcement takedowns and insightful work from online scam-baiters, who have made it their (non-violent!) mission to do their own protecting of the hive. People like Jim Browning and Scammer Payback on YouTube have used social engineering and white-hat hacking to shine a light on what’s happening within some of these groups.

The workers

Those at the bottom of the criminal organization in the Beekeeper work at the call centers from which these scam calls originate. The callers are portrayed as not wholly amoral. They’re just making these calls to earn a paycheck and are willing to walk out once they learn the true scope of their actions. The call centers they work for are portrayed as apparently legitimate businesses, with a number of them being connected as shell companies to the bigger, semi-hidden corporate entity.

This directly aligns with the real world. Call centers like the one in the Beekeeper have been discovered worldwide. Earlier tech-support scams were run out of India, where one of the drivers appears to be companies losing out on offshoring deals and using their locations and infrastructure to pivot to scams

Today, a larger proportion of call centers are elsewhere in Asia or the Middle East and can be run directly by organized crime in large complexes that were abandoned due to Covid (e.g., in Cambodia). More recently, it has been discovered that Mexican cartels are running call centers targeting Americans, showing the profitability of cybercrime (and its low prosecution rates) and how scams have become a part of organized crime globally.

Unfortunately, in the real world, the lower levels of the organization are often forced into their roles through economic necessity or coercion (during the film several workers try to leave but are threatened by their manager when they do). In the real world, Asian call center employees are more often than not actually scam victims themselves: They reply to a job which looks legitimate (not just call center agent, but also IT staff to build the tech and websites of the criminals) and once they arrive, their passports are taken and they become prisoners until they hit financial targets specified by the criminal organizers.

Money launderers employ similar criminal structures, hiring workers as money mules recruited to open bank accounts in their names to receive and then transfer away the stolen funds. Typically, mules are either students or migrant workers who sell their accounts for a few hundred dollars. Unfortunately, once the stolen money has hit their accounts, they are then blacklisted – at a minimum, seeing their banking services blocked (increasingly, they also end up with criminal records).

Fraud-fighter rating: Plausible, but scams like these are more likely to come from an offshore call center due to the lower operating costs compared to a call center located within the U.S.

The middle management

Obviously, some artistic license has been taken in how the protagonists in this film are portrayed, but I suspect in the real world there might not be as much difference as we think. Thanks to evidence from various scam-baiters, we see the middle management of some scam call centers behaving similarly to the excesses in this film.

Their general attitude of showing distain for and belittling their victims (and staff!) implies elements of the Dark Triad of Personality Traits: narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Their callous and manipulative style directly reflects this and has been shown in a high proportion of criminals who have been arrested for technology-enabled fraud.

Ironically, these same traits sometimes help people get ahead within large legitimate companies, where their confident, forceful influence allows them to manipulate or bully their way up the corporate ladder. It makes sense then that these traits are also shown in the more senior managers within criminal organizations.

These are the people responsible for the “playbooks” given to call center workers. This is what makes these scams so successful – a set of cleverly layered social engineering hooks that keep the victim on the line by making them fear what might happen more than ending the call.

In Asia, there is a long-term, investment/crypto scam known as “Pig Butchering” that relies on a playbook to “fatten the pig,” gradually convincing the victim to transfer away more and more currency until the scammer disappears. There is now a motion to reclassify these scams as “financial grooming,” as it better describes the fraud and re-humanizes the victim, who is often left financially and emotionally bankrupt.

In The Beekeeper, one of these middle management types attempts to negotiate with Statham/Clay after being captured, offering him crypto or NFTs in return for the criminal middle-manager's freedom. Right up until the point of his imminent demise, this scammer genuinely believes he can manipulate Statham/Clay as he’s grown so used to getting his way.

In the movie, these middle managers dress in a way that also reflects their arrogance, wearing loud clothing (GOAT suit!) and expensive watches. In the real world, this is also true. The best example of this kind of criminal bling is probably shown by the money launderer Ramon Olorunwa Abbas – better known by his online handle of Hushpuppi. He was involved with both laundering scam money and North Korean banking hacks and not only flaunted his wealth in the real-world but also amassed a large following on social media!

Fraud-fighter rating: Plausible, although exaggerated, in that their traits fit their behavioral profile and desire for material validation of their worth.

The kingpin and his parent corporation

The main antagonist in the film is a younger (under 30) privileged male with similar psychological traits to that of his mid-level flunkies. He is hands-off in the day-to-day operation of the criminal side of the organization, with the cashflow part of the business being funneled back through shell companies into a legitimate, larger parent corporation. The profits from the criminal enterprise are revealed to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, which becomes part of a plot twist.

In the real world, the people at the top of any criminal organization look to legitimize their income and distance themselves from the actual fraud, money laundering, and/or violence. This has been true since the days of Al Capone and the Kray Twins on either side of the Atlantic, or even further back to the robber barons of the Old West who became philanthropists!

One subtle but telling point within the film answers the question about how the victims were targeted: The criminal parent company was using a purloined CIA data-mining app to identify targets. Presumably this was using some form of machine learning or AI based on large datasets to spot victims based on both vulnerability and financial situations.

Unfortunately, this does parallel the dark web. Criminals have taken multiple data breach sets and merged them to better apply data science principles to build dossiers on their victims. We know: When people are targeted for scams, the scammers already know a lot of information about them (with whom they bank and relevant account details, personal details, email, phone numbers, etc.) and use this within their playbooks to establish credibility. Even more saddening, we know that once someone falls victim to a scam, they are then targeted repeatedly, as they have shown vulnerability recognized within dark markets. Banks do see repeat victimization, showing how data-sharing between the good guys is essential to protecting victims. Alarmingly, artificial intelligence portends to supercharge the dossier-building skills of even the most novice scammer.

Fraud-fighter rating: Potentially plausible. We still don’t know enough about the ultimate beneficiaries of scams. GASA estimates fraudsters steal $1 trillion every year, meaning those at the top – whoever they are – are getting very rich.

Main take-aways

1. Scams are the top fraud threat in the world

2. Scams are often emotionally and financially devastating to victims

3. There is a moral imperative to act against scammers

4. Fraud-fighters need to work their way up the (kill) chain to link fraudsters and money launderers

5. We must go on the offensive to protect the hive!

My score: A solid 8/10, a good action movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously (the mercenaries at the end in particular cracked me up!). Unashamed mayhem at times but – like the films I grew up with – The Beekeeper is an entertaining popcorn thriller with a moral compass at its heart.

I also give it a fraud-fighter thumbs up. The film is a literal kill chain, as Statham/Clay follows his way up the pyramid of criminality to the top. This term was first used by the military before it entered the cybersecurity world. As fraud-fighters, we now recognize we too must treat scams as a sequence of events. By investigating, blocking, and/or querying at different steps, we can make an impact. The earlier in the chain, the better the disruption. Maybe it is better called a “fraud value chain” out of respect for the real-life victims of scams?

A positive side effect of this film is in consumer education. Often mass media can be more effective in giving advice to a broader set of people than any amount of government- or bank-produced training and education material.

To close, The Beekeeper is a true B(ee) movie that deserves rewatching and a sequel.

And if David Ayer (the director) wants any expert perspective on how to protect the hive, I have a few ideas!

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