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COVID-19: a crisis that could heighten crime?

COVID-19 has spread at an exponential rate, with over 700,000 confirmed cases across the world. As a result, governments have enacted unprecedented measures in order to limit its spread and increase healthcare to deal with the outbreak. The focus has been on protecting the economy and people’s livelihoods, but the COVID-19 outbreak impacts lesser-seen dimensions. The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL) released a report detailing how criminals can exploit the current world crisis. It concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences not only for our health, but for the internal security of the EU and its citizens.

EUROPOL’s report firstly identifies factors that can catalyse shifts in crime and terrorism, stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak. The outbreak has seen a surge in demand for certain goods, particularly health equipment and protective gear, whilst decreasing the mobility of people, confining populations to their home. Quarantine restrictions in countries across Europe have increased reliance on the internet and telecommunications, heightening fears of cybercrime and digital forms of exploitation.

The key findings of the report state that criminals are taking advantage of the demand for certain goods and information, launching various attacks in four main areas: cybercrime, fraud, counterfeit / substandard goods distribution and organised crime.

According to EUROPOL, a major cybercrime attack has already taken place at Brno University Hospital, Czechia. Cybercriminals forced the hospital to shut down its entire IT network, meaning urgent surgeries had to be postponed and patients had to be rerouted to alternative hospitals. As well as the main hospital, two other branches, the Children’s Hospital and the Maternity Hospital, were also affected. Cyber-attacks on critical health infrastructure can have devastating consequences at a time where there is extraordinary demand and pressure on health services. Cybercriminals are able to exploit the public health crisis, posing real threats to people’s lives and compromising the ability of health workers to act. Czechia is only one of fifteen countries in the EU that has declared a state of emergency, an attack of this nature replicated in other countries could endanger hundreds.

Additionally, EUROPOL details how criminals are using fraud and the selling of counterfeit goods to profit from the pandemic. The sale of counterfeit healthcare, sanitary and pharmaceutical products, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased significantly since the outbreak of COVID-19. Businesses seeking to purchase medical protective gear and other supplies are being targeted.

Graeme Biggar, Director General of the National Economic Crime Centre, has warned that “individuals and businesses need to be fully aware and prepared. There is a wealth of advice available from dedicated counter fraud professionals, but in general you should always think very carefully before you hand over your money or your personal details”.

Member States have reported similar scams to EUROPOL involving sought-after products, such as one investigation on the transfer of €6.6 million from a company to another company in Singapore to purchase alcohol gels and masks, that were never received. Another Member State reported the loss of €300,000 when a company attempted to purchase over 3 million masks.

An operation coordinated by INTERPOL tackled fraudulent activity and counterfeit goods operations worldwide. Authorities around the world seized nearly 34,000 counterfeit surgical masks, the most commonly sold medical product online, as well as €13 million in potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals and 37,000 unauthorised and counterfeit medical devices such as fake COVID-19 testing kits. In the cyber realm, the operation also succeeded in taking down 2,500 online websites, marketplaces, social media sites and advertisements that contribute to the selling of fraudulent goods. The scale of the distribution shows how criminals attempt to capitalise on the fears and anxieties of the general public, exploiting the vulnerability caused by this pandemic. Many healthcare workers have already been put at risk due to the lack of PPE supplies, let alone the risk of counterfeit goods and improper equipment making its way into hospitals and people’s homes.

Two more particularly vulnerable populations are children and the elderly. In conjunction with law enforcement partners, EUROPOL reports that there is increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material. School closures and quarantine measures put children at greater risk of online abuse and grooming, especially if their parents are in isolation and they have less supervision. Furthermore, as many people are primarily confined to their homes, the elderly are being targeted for organised property theft. Commander Karen Baxter, National Co-ordinator of Economic Crime at the City of London Police, told the Crown Prosecution Service:

“As more people stay indoors and work from computers and laptops at home, there is more opportunity for criminals to try and trick people at a time when they are anxious and uncertain about the future. This is especially relevant as older, more vulnerable people self-isolate and may be targeted over the phone, or even in person, by despicable criminals.”

Fraudsters are using methods such as impersonating medical staff to enter homes, or faking news that a relative is in the hospital to lure people away from their properties. These techniques are proving effective in a time of high anxiety and disruption in people’s lives, a situation where criminals can more easily take advantage of the most vulnerable in society.

Finally, threats to security are all not solely cyber-related, but extend into the humanitarian arena. An ongoing challenge to the EU in the last decade has been migrant smuggling, which remains at large during the pandemic. EUROPOL predicts there will be a likely increase in the demand for services of migrant smuggling networks to avoid enhanced border control measures across the EU. The Central Mediterranean route is the main route to Europe, with almost 119,000 migrants being detected by EUROPOL in 2017, but also the Western Mediterranean route, the West Balkans and the UK-France border are all prime locations for this type of organised crime. A pandemic allows migrant smugglers to continue to exploit people who seek safe harbour, posing an additional threat of close contact and unsanitary conditions which facilitate the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 has brought many challenges to the world, with prioritising healthcare at the forefront of global responses. However, the EUROPOL report shows that keeping people safe is not limited to healthcare, as the security of individuals and nations has been put at risk. As well as protective measures for combating the spread of the disease, there needs to be extra-protective measures for cyber security and border control across the EU, in order to reduce the ability of criminals to use COVID-19 to their advantage. Safety is key, whether it be in our hospitals or in our homes.

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