Ortis case linked to Vancouver firm that supplied secure cellphones to international criminals

The investigation into top RCMP civilian official Cameron Ortis began with a shadowy, multimillion-dollar Vancouver-based company run by Canadians that sold encrypted cellphones to drug traffickers and money launderers around the world.

The key figures behind Phantom Secure Communications even used modified versions of Canada’s iconic Blackberry devices to help their international criminal clientele evade police.

According to a grand jury indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California dated June 2017, four of the five key people behind Phantom Secure Communications were Canadian.

Vincent Ramos of Richmond, B.C. was the founder and CEO and American prosecutors said he was also the company’s key administrator.

Cameron Ortis was charged last week with violating Canada’s official secrets act. Documents seen by CBC News say Ortis was in contact with Phantom Secure, a company run by Canadians that supplied encrypted phones to criminals around the world. (Sketch by Laurie Foster-MacLeod for CBC News)

Security documents seen by CBC News say an FBI investigation in 2018 found Ortis had emailed Ramos. It is alleged that Ortis contacted Ramos to offer him “valuable” information.

Ortis was arrested last week on charges under the Security of Information Act.

Pleaded guilty, got nine years

Ramos pleaded guilty in an American court to racketeering conspiracy and was sentenced in May to nine years in prison.

Four of his associates, Canadians Younes Nasri, Michael Gamboa and Christopher Poquiz, and Kim Rodd, who has joint Australian-Thai citizenship, are still being sought by American authorities.

The conviction followed a joint investigation by the FBI, the Australian Federal Police and the RCMP that carried out 25 searches in the United States, Australia and Canada.

Police estimate the group made more than $80 million providing international criminals with secure communications systems between 2008 and 2018.

“Phantom Secure’s devices were specifically designed to prevent law enforcement from actively monitoring the communications between members of transnational criminal organizations,” prosecutors wrote in the indictment.

“As part of its services, Phantom Secure guaranteed that messages stored on its devices could be (and would be) remotely deleted by the company if the device was seized by law enforcement or otherwise compromised.”

Modified Blackberry phones

At the heart of the system was Canada’s iconic Blackberry.

Phantom Secure took the Blackberry phones, installed sophisticated encryption software and routed the data through encryption servers located in countries the company believed were unco-operative with law enforcement.

Police estimate that in 2018 there were at least 10,000 Phantom Secure devices in use worldwide, with users paying $4,000 a year for the service.

But not just anyone could buy these phones. Prospective customers had to be vouched for by an existing client, which prosecutors said helped restrict Phantom Secure’s customer base to those who wanted to use the device for criminal activity.

Prosecutors said Phantom Secure maintained its servers in Panama and Hong Kong, using proxy servers to further disguise the location of its servers.

The company helped drug trafficking and money laundering in Australia, Asia, Europe, the United States and Canada, concealing its proceeds through cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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