How Covid-19 caused an organised crime boom

Criminal groups have capitalised on the chaos of coronavirus by adopting new methods

As everyone moved online during social distancing, organised crime did not miss one of the manifold opportunities for illicit behaviour. Photograph:  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As everyone moved online during social distancing, organised crime did not miss one of the manifold opportunities for illicit behaviour. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

In the past year, while many of us have spent months locked in our houses worried about the health of those we love and feared losing our jobs and our business, one part of society has thrived, grown richer and more powerful during the pandemic – organised crime.

Across the world criminal groups have operated largely unfazed by the closing of borders, social distancing regulations and the closures of economic and social life.

They have taken every opportunity to make more money from the chaos and the fear, and have lined their pockets and built their legitimacy in the failures of governments to protect their citizens effectively.

Here at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (globalinitiative.net) we study criminal groups and the illicit economy across the world, trying to capture dynamics of their operations in order to build better responses and put in place the building blocks of a global strategy against organised crime.

An array of criminal markets has been growing over the past 20 years, fuelled by the massive expansion of global trade, and facilitated by the internet, encryption, digital currencies and other communication and technology advances that have offered more discreet and effective ways to communicate, co-ordinate, move money and hide wealth.

Wildlife species trade

The wet market in Wuhan, China, was closed in early January 2020, and while we still do not really know how the pandemic began, the vast majority of infectious diseases come as a result of zoonotic transmission from animals to humans.

An early theory – still debated among scientists – went that Covid-19 was started by a bat, passed then to a pangolin and on to humans who consumed these protected species as food or medicine. Regardless of the truth of the theory, it resulted in an initial clampdown on the illicit trade in wildlife species.

There was some hope in the early days of the pandemic that the fear of zoonotic transmission from illegally traded species such as the pangolin might dampen some demand, or lead to new attitudes to regulate and prevent the illicit wildlife trade. But that hope was shortlived.

With a value estimated between $10 billion and $23 billion a year by the UN, the illicit wildlife species trade is a dynamic global market facilitated by organised crime.

The tiny pangolin – a small scaly, nocturnal creature that curls up into a tight ball to protect itself – is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The rate of seizures of both live pangolin and their body parts have increased tenfold in the past six years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In 2020, not only did we see little evidence of changing consumer patterns, but traffickers themselves seemed undaunted by the travel restrictions and lockdowns. After only a temporary disruption, poachers and illegal loggers continued to pillage protected environmental commodities at the same rate, if not even faster. Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, record seizures of sharks’ fins, totoba (a fish bladder delicacy), abalone and rhino horns were being made in ports in the Americas, Asia and Africa.

The pangolin – a scaly, nocturnal creature that curls up into a tight ball to protect itself – is the most trafficked mammal in the world. Photograph: Getty Images
The pangolin – a scaly, nocturnal creature that curls up into a tight ball to protect itself – is the most trafficked mammal in the world. Photograph: Getty Images

Drug trade

This was a trend we were to see in trafficking of other illicit commodities. The global illicit drug market in particular seemed able to continue throughout the pandemic with business largely as usual, affected neither in source, transit or destination markets.

Before the pandemic there was evidence that supplies of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines were at a record high, so minor disruptions in source – for example, there were reports of labour shortages to harvest opium poppy in Afghanistan because people feared falling sick – did little to affect the market.

EU policing units were to discover that large quantities of drugs were already stockpiled in Europe waiting for distribution. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (ECMDDA) reported that during social distancing, while drug dealers on the street made some modifications – shifting to dead-drops and electronic payments to avoid meeting people in person – there was little evidence of disruption and that organised crime groups remained resilient and were able to adapt to the situation.

In Ireland, before the pandemic began the drugs trade appeared to be recovering and had begun to thrive again in line with the fortunes of the wider economy after the economic crash of 10 years ago. Since the onset of Covid-19, the level of drug and cash seizures made by the Garda suggests a drugs trade that has proven very resilient and has continued to flourish despite lockdown.

Cyber crime

It was in the cyber realm that organised crime was to see its biggest advantage. As everyone moved online during social distancing, organised crime did not miss one of the manifold opportunities for illicit behaviour.

Even before lockdowns started and were commonplace, an army of fraudsters had gone straight to work. Internet service providers and online security firms recorded an eye-watering increase in coronavirus-themed cyber-attacks – phishing, ransomware, malicious websites and email scams.

The number of website domain names registered with associations to the pandemic increased by more than 1,500 per cent between February and March of 2020. These websites were used to sell fake medicines, testing kits, medical supplies and PPE online, another booming illicit business for organised crime.

Even before the pandemic, the trade in fake goods was worth 3.3 per cent of global trade, and this share has steadily risen.

Hackers targeted ransomware at hospitals and research institutions searching for vaccines, escalating their attacks at critical moments. There was a clear spike in cyber-attacks reported against medical research institutions and biopharmaceutical companies. The WHO reported that it experienced a five-fold increase in the number of attacks directed at its systems and staff since the outbreak of the virus.

Hospitals and newly created emergency facilities lost control of important patient records as they were held hostage by hackers, and in September one critically ill woman in Germany died when her transfer to an intensive care facility was delayed because of a ransomware attack.

The global illicit drug market in particular seemed able to continue throughout the pandemic with business largely as usual. Photograph: Getty Images
The global illicit drug market in particular seemed able to continue throughout the pandemic with business largely as usual. Photograph: Getty Images

Pornography

Other forms of organised crime have also seen their activities swell as bored people sought out different forms of entertainment. The growth in viewers of online porn sites – which comprised 30 per cent of all global internet traffic even before the pandemic – exploded. Pornhub, the single largest global provider of pornography, saw its subscriptions rise by 18 per cent in March 2020.

But these sites have been linked to involuntary and abusive sexual material, including exploitation of underage and abducted women and girls. The membership of online communities known to exchange child exploitative material also swelled, as did the speed at which files were being shared.

These images of exploitation will remain online long after the pandemic has ended.

Policing

As criminals demonstrated their ingenuity and resilience in the face of the pandemic, the challenge for law enforcement intensified as new public safety priorities manifested.

Meanwhile those on the frontline of monitoring, enforcement or victim support found themselves falling sick, working from home or furloughed. Access to police stations in many parts of the world was reduced or stopped entirely, and police stations were closed.

In most policing jurisdictions officers work in difficult and cramped conditions – in police stations, locker rooms, closed cars and other transport vehicles. Given this proximity, once a few officers had been infected the virus spread rapidly among the ranks. In October in the Belgian city of Liège, for example, the police union reported that around 50 per cent of police officers were unable to work.

The impact of the pandemic on operational policing in Ireland was well managed, but in other parts of the world the impacts were far more severe. With fewer officers available to respond to calls, many police departments began to triage their responses and ignore lesser requests.

Similar reductions in capacity occurred across the criminal justice and security systems. Social programmes that provided outreach and support to vulnerable communities, or identified and responded to victims, were similarly curtailed.

Customs officers were sent home, and surveillance over illicit trade was reduced in many countries even while the pressure to express basic goods and medical supplies across borders was increased.

Courts were closed, sentencing of criminals slowed or stopped altogether, vastly impacting on the ability to ensure justice is served for organised crime cases.

Prisons have become epicentres of virus transmission, and staff have fallen sick and numbers have been reduced. Interestingly, an estimated 10 per cent of all global prisoners (many of them low-level drug users) were released as a Covid-19 prevention measure, with little impact on street crime levels.

Crime after Covid-19

The pandemic has highlighted many weaknesses in the global system of responding to organised crime, and the lack of preparedness of many institutions at the forefront of a response to a global health emergency to deal with the threat of criminal groups. The virtual world is, more often than not, policed by tech companies in the private sector rather than by national law enforcement.

The strength of criminal groups and the profits they have been able to secure during the pandemic will leave them strong as the legitimate economy has been weakened by the terrible cost of the virus. It is clear that a number of threats remain – in particular the risk that criminal money is allowed to penetrate deeper into the economy, buying up bankrupt businesses and offering usurious loans to those laid off.

Global responses to surging illicit markets over the past two decades have been weak and ineffective. Does the pandemic itself, in the wake of which multiple other economic and social policies are being re-evaluated, also offer an opportunity for retooling our response?

Almost certainly, yes. Old law enforcement-style responses limited to national borders have proved futile. Bigger strategic thinking and policy experimentation has been lacking. The post-pandemic offers an opportunity for a rethink.

Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw are the deputy-director and director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, and authors of Criminal Contagion: How Mafias, Gangsters and Scammers Profit from a Pandemic (Hurst)