Individuals and criminal organizations have taken immediate advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to find new ways of making money, the European Union’s law enforcement agency said Thursday, citing a spike in counterfeiting and cybercrime.
In a report Thursday looking at how the pandemic will shape organized crime in the EU, Europol said much of the criminality related to the deadly virus reflects the flexibility of criminal organizations, a trend that was already witnessed during previous financial crises.
But this time, the impact became evident much more quickly, with a sharp increase in cybercrime in the first weeks of the virus’s spread.
“New and adapted attacks appeared almost immediately from the onset of the crisis and have been among the most visible types of criminality,” Europol said. “In part, this is due to our reliance on digital and online solutions during the lockdown to work remotely and maintain contacts with colleagues, friends and family.”
After an initial surge in cybercrime, the agency said it witnessed a decrease toward the end of April.
The initial cyberattacks were quite simple, but Europol noted that criminals devised more complex schemes when the pandemic reached Europe. They have also changed the way they operate.
“For instance, the cybercriminals shortened the period between the initial infection with ransomware and the activation of the ransomware attack, not waiting for an ideal moment to launch the attack but trying as soon as possible to maximise profits,” the agency said.
While the impact of COVID-19 on the level of terrorist threat to the 27-country European Union has been limited so far, Europol said it is worried by the increase of online child pornography and “the conversations of potential offenders around the increased accessibility and vulnerability of children online due to isolation, less supervision and greater online exposure.”
Another palpable trend has been the multiplication of scams promoting test kits and treatments for the deadly virus that has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide, the agency said. Europol also noted a boom in the trade of counterfeit pharmaceutical and healthcare products such as face masks, antivirals or alcohol-based gels as criminal organisations took advantage of the shortage of genuine products.
“New variations of these COVID-19-related scams appear every day. However, it is expected that once the current pandemic subsides, the number of these types of scams will diminish over time,” Europol said.
In the long term, the agency expects a return to previous levels of crime featuring classic illegal activities as lockdown measures are progressively eased.
“However, the pandemic is likely to have created new opportunities for criminal activities that will be exploited beyond the end of the current crisis,” it said. “Organised crime is highly adaptable and has demonstrated the ability to extract long-term gains from crises, such as the end of the cold war or the global economic of 2007 and 2008.”