Europol warns of counterfeit coronavirus vaccines

Global recession will provide criminals with new opportunities, says agency

Scammers are already offering vaccines for coronavirus online despite a real vaccine likely being at least a year away. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Scammers are already offering vaccines for coronavirus online despite a real vaccine likely being at least a year away. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

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Organised criminals are likely to invest heavily in manufacturing and selling counterfeit coronavirus vaccines as the pandemic goes on, a new report warns.

The report from European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Co-operation, better known as Europol, states criminals have already adapted to the health crisis and will continue to exploit the pandemic as states begin to lift their lockdowns and the European Union faces into a severe recession.

The cancellation of music festivals and similar events may result in a notable drop in revenue for drugs gangs, it says. “However, this drop is unlikely to persist and will stabilise again over the long term.”

Drug seizures

The trafficking of cannabis, cocaine and heroin has continued through the pandemic at reduced levels. Once the crisis ends, regular supply will resume “with little or no mid- or long-term impact”.

Furthermore, fluctuations in the price of some illegal drugs during the pandemic will stabilise when users and mid-level dealers are assured of a stable supply, the report states.

In Ireland, the Garda has made a number of substantial drug seizures since the crisis hit. Some of these, such as the seizure of €2.5 million worth of cocaine last week, are the result of intelligence operations while other hauls have been uncovered by chance at coronavirus checkpoints.

Europol said one of the most significant changes in the criminal landscape has been fraud involving medical and personal protective equipment (PPE). Last month the Garda, along with police forces across Europe, uncovered a €15 million face masks fraud. A Roscommon man was interviewed on suspicion of helping European scammers defraud the German health authorities by claiming to sell them non-existent masks.

Europol warns that, as some countries move towards making face masks mandatory, criminals may increase the supply of counterfeit PPE.

Scammers are already offering vaccines for coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, online despite a real vaccine likely being at least a year away. Europol warns that when the development of a genuine vaccine is announced “it is expected that counterfeiters and fraudsters will invest heavily in offering ineffective counterfeits of this vaccine especially online via different platforms and on social media”.

Regarding financial crime, many organised crime gangs have been impacted by the closure of restaurants and casinos, both favoured means of laundering money. This combined with the “diminishing relevance of cash as a payment medium during the crisis” means criminals will likely have to find new means of laundering ill-gotten gains.

Sex traffickers

However, the expected global recession will also provide organised crime with many new opportunities, the agency says.

For example, “a recession may further stimulate demand for cheaper daily consumer goods, which may be met by [gangs] offering counterfeit or substandard alternatives.”

It will also increase irregular migration from developing countries, creating new opportunities for people smugglers and sex traffickers.

The vastly increased number of people working from home means people are spending far more time online, which creates new opportunities for cyber-criminals, Europol says. Children are also spending more time online socialising and e-learning. Europol believes this may increase the risk of online child exploitation.

It also suggests the lifting of lockdown measures will lead to a spike in burglaries as workers return to work and criminals target newly empty houses.

There may also be an increase in reports of child abuse as abuse which occurred during lockdown is discovered.

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