The European Police Office detects an increase in cyber-attacks, internet fraud and counterfeit products against covid-19.

Juan Sanhermelando  @jsanhermelando Brussels

In the middle of an unprecedented global crisis, criminals are rapidly adapting their business model in order to maximise their profits from the covid-19 pandemic. Organised crime networks adjust their operating models to the new opportunities offered by the coronavirus or launch new criminal activities, warns a report by the European Police Office, Europol.

The main factors driving these changes in organised crime and terrorism are the high demand for protective equipment and medicines, a reduction in mobility and the flow of people across EU territory, and the increase in teleworking and computer systems dependence. These are the criminal activities that are gaining momentum with the coronavirus.

1. Cybercrime

The covid-19 pandemic is a serious public health problem and a cybersecurity risk that warns Europol. The number of cyber-attacks against organisations and individuals is significant and is forecast to rise. Criminals are using the coronavirus crisis to carry out all kinds of social engineering attacks, i.e. cyber-attacks. People’s good faith is abused to make them perform actions for the benefit of the cyber-criminal.

For example, there has been an increase in ransomware attacks, the distribution of malware that restricts access to certain parts of the infected system and demands a ransom to lift the blockade. Law enforcement agencies in different countries have also detected an increase in online activity by those seeking child pornography material.

The problems may yet go further. The increase in the number of companies teleworking and allowing external connections to their central computer systems provides new avenues of attack for cybercriminals, says Europol.

So far, the most serious case is a cyber-attack against the Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic, which forced the hospital to shut down its entire IT network, postpone all urgent medical interventions, and redirect emergency patients to other hospitals.

2. Fraud

Fraudsters have been quick to adapt well-known types of fraud to capitalise on the anxiety and fears caused by the coronavirus crisis. This includes various telephone scams, scams involving the delivery of products that never arrive, or scams offering offers to disinfect and remove the virus that also does not exist.

Europol warns that these and other new scams will continue to increase in the coming weeks and months and could cause significant financial damage to individuals, businesses and public institutions. Scams are also being detected in the financial sector: offers of speculative investments in covid-19 related stocks with the promise of substantial and secure returns.

Among the preferred victims of scammers are companies looking to buy face masks or other health equipment to protect themselves from the coronavirus. In one Member State not identified in the report, a company paid 6.6 million euros to another Singapore company to purchase face masks and alcohol gels. The order never arrived.

3. Counterfeit and defective products

The sale of counterfeit medical devices, personal protective equipment and medicines has increased exponentially since the outbreak of the crisis. According to Europol, a rise driven by the high demand for masks, gloves or cleaning products has created a buoyant market for all kinds of counterfeiters, fraudsters and profiteers.

These counterfeit and defective products are advertised and sold both on and offline. Some cases, such as the distribution of counterfeit coronavirus tests to individuals, are of great concern from a public health perspective, the report says.

Europol was recently involved in an international raid against trafficking in counterfeit medical products (Operation Pangea), which took place between 3 and 10 March in 90 countries and resulted in the arrest of 121 people. Most disturbing was the finding of a large number of unauthorised antiviral drugs, says the study.

4. Burglaries in private homes involving the elderly

Many EU member states have reported a similar modus operandi for home burglaries to Europol in the coronavirus era. Burglars gain access to private homes, mostly of older adults, by presenting themselves as medical personnel coming to give information, provide hygiene products or perform the Covid-19 test, and take advantage of the situation to steal all valuables.

The European Police Office also warns of a probable increase in organised robberies in commercial premises and medical centres while the pandemic lasts.

5. Drugs, migrant smuggling and prostitution

It is still difficult to assess the short-term impact of the coronavirus crisis on drug markets, but it is likely to cause disruptions in illegal supply channels. Early indications point to a stockpiling of certain drugs by users and problems of shortages of precursors and essential chemicals used in drug production in the EU, which will impact production and prices. Europol calls on law enforcement agencies to closely monitor the situation because “supply shortages could eventually lead to increased violence incidents between rival dealers”.

Human smuggling networks will also benefit from the Covid-19 pandemic. The report predicts that migrants will rely even more on smugglers’ services when entering the EU or moving from one Member State to another to help them try to circumvent the tightened border controls that most countries have introduced because of the coronavirus.

Finally, Europol warns of the risk that the closure of legal brothels due to Covid-19 could lead to an increase in cases of sexual exploitation.