Former Celtic star Stiliyan Petrov has hit out at fraudsters who pose as football agents and con families out of their life savings.
Criminals have been hijacking mobile phone apps set up to find life-changing contracts for young foreign hopefuls.
Crooks posing as agents use smartphone software to target parents with bogus promises of a deal for their
children at big clubs.
Petrov, who won four league titles in a seven-year spell with Celtic, has been campaigning against the fraud with his Player4Player organisation.
He said: “Young people are really committed to their dream. They will do everything to have that chance to shine or be seen by a scout but people are trying to take advantage of players and parents, which is a real shame.
“We receive emails from so many young players asking us to help them develop or have the chance to be seen. But when they are desperate and want to chase their dreams, they become blinded.
"They just want that opportunity but people take advantage of that. They will try to make money on the back of people having a dream.”
Gangs have turned to web applications after Covid-19 put face-to-face meetings with young players on hold.
Among the apps targeted is Playerhunter, which young footballers download to showcase their skills videos, statistics and contact details.
The app was set up as a legitimate service to connect amateur youth players with middle men and scouts who could help them win contracts in the UK.
A probe by the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) found it had been infiltrated by criminals. Other programmes have also been breached.
Some fraudsters pretended to be Mino Raiola, who represents some of football’s biggest names, including Manchester United’s Paul Pogba.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Raiola or Playerhunter.
Bulgarian Petrov, 41, who left Celtic for Aston Villa in 2006, added: “We all need to do more. If we can raise awareness and protect 10 or 15 people, then we have done a good job.
"Many former players are doing the same and we need to protect as many young kids as possible.
“My message to players, parents or friends or family is to speak with the players’ unions and check the situation beforethey commit.
“We try to educate them and give them the right pathway so they understand the right opportunities.”
The ICSS’s sport integrity unit does not have law enforcement powers but “provides assistance in case follow-up with relevant sport bodies” in the UK and Africa.
Fred Lord, director of anti-corruption at the ICSS, added: “Organised criminal networks are always innovative and opportunistic.
“Even during a global pandemic, with restricted movement across international borders, criminals have chosen to infiltrate football apps to purport to be legitimate scouts to convince young players to pay for fake football opportunities.
“It will be critical to ensure that all football apps have the appropriate levels of monitoring and protection in place to safeguard the young players using their platforms as they market themselves for real sporting opportunities.”
Experts found fraudsters drawing up fake contracts with clubs in Europe and Asia to target kids worldwide. Some UK families have also handed over cash, it was found.
Fraudsters typically ask for funds to be wired to the “accountant of the club”. The cash is presented as an advance to cover accommodation, visas, flights and a medical.
The same probe found fraudsters are setting up fake UK bank accounts in the name of English Premier League clubs to dupe families.
Stevan Radak, founder of Playerhunter, said it now connects players directly with clubs and verifies all job applications to cut the risk of scammers.
He said: “We’re very active in doing something against this, we are doing everything possible to stop it. The best way of doing this is to verify every single job.”