Crime during the COVID-19 pandemic
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International structures, such as the United Nations (UN), the International Organisation of Police Forces (INTERPOL) and the European Police Office (EUROPOL), point out we may face new forms of criminal activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that these are continuously growing in number. We are warned that criminal groups are adapting their abilities to exploit the crisis we are going through, taking advantage of the general state of social vulnerability. As evidence, in recent months, traffic in counterfeit medical products and pharmaceutical substances has internationally become increasingly frequent. All over the world various advertisements on the sale of such products, which can be extremely dangerous to our health, are posted online. As a result of all the above, during March 2020, INTERPOL carried out Operation Pangea XIII, which involved 90 countries that have been affected by the new coronavirus. More than 2,500 websites advertising illegally obtained pharmaceuticals were closed and 37 criminal groups were dismantled. As part of the action, 600 cases of trafficking in counterfeit sanitary masks were identified, with more than 34,000 items seized. At the same time, officers took action against the black market in chloroquine, which is a medicine used in the treatment of malaria and currently studied for possible use in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. INTERPOL representatives state that the risks of using counterfeit medicines are very high, as some may contain an inadequate amount of the active substance (or too much), others, possibly stolen, are stored under inadequate conditions or have expired. The market value of pharmaceutical and medical products seized under Pangea XIII is approximately EUR 12.7 million. In a debate on these new criminal activities, Catherine De Bolle, EUROPOL’s executive director, stated that “the current situation is unacceptable. Such criminal activities during a public health crisis are particularly dangerous and can have irreparable consequences for the lives of each of us.”
In addition to interventions which combat crimes in the context of the pandemic, international organisations are concerned about informing the public about possible risks or undesirable situations. With respect to this matter, EUROPOL published a report in March presenting the most common criminal activities against which we must be extremely cautious. Therefore, in addition to trafficking in medical products and counterfeit pharmaceutical substances, criminal groups mainly commit:
- Theft: some criminals claim to be medics who test the population for the new coronavirus or provide medical and hygiene products; others say they work in local government or for various non-governmental organisations and that they are distributing food to the population. Under such pretexts they enter people’s homes, where they take the opportunity to steal valuables.
- Cybercrime: those who are part of such networks create web pages, e-commerce platforms, social networking pages and e-mail addresses, claiming to distribute medical and pharmaceutical products useful in preventing and treating COVID-19. In some cases, to increase credibility, they fraudulently use the names and logos of companies known to the general public, thus obtaining email addresses, passwords, personal data, or information about the user’s bank account (phishing), which are used in committing other crimes. Also, as more and more people work from home, computers become the main link between employees and their employer. Criminal groups frequently take advantage of this situation to upload to computers various programs (malware) that subsequently act against the interests of users. A recent case is the University of Brno Hospital in the Czech Republic, which closed its premises after a cyber attack shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. This attack caused both human and financial damage because medical interventions, including urgent surgery, were cancelled and patients were transferred to other medical facilities. Finally, of particular importance is the warning from specialists at the UN Cybercrime Bureau, who stress that the risks of child abuse and exploitation in cyberspace are currently very high.
- Phone scams: In some of the EU countries, criminals claim to be employees of a hospital where a person close to the victim (a relative, friend, or neighbour) is being treated for the new coronavirus. In this context, the caller will request payment of an amount of money, either to pay the costs of medical treatment, or for the discharge of the patient. They usually use the bank transfer method to get additional information about the victim. As a note, this type of criminal activity would not be possible in the UK, as the NHS does not charge for any treatment apart from dental work.
- Smuggling migrants: Amid the current travel restrictions, the number of clandestine shipments of migrants – which may entail breaking the law of the country of destination – have greatly increased. This deliberately violates travel restrictions introduced for the purposes of disease control, in this case relating to the COVID-19 virus, currently established in most countries of the world.
According to specialists from INTERPOL and EUROPOL, national law enforcement agencies must pay greater attention to pandemic-related criminal activities; inform the population about the current risks and promote appropriate safety measures. At the same time, it is recommended that each of us be cautious in communicating personal and banking data and that we avoid making payments to companies that have only recently appeared on the market or whose services we did not use before the crisis. It is very important not to purchase medical products and pharmaceutical substances from distributors whose legal standing is uncertain. In addition, since many of our activities are currently being carried out online, it is important to exercise extra supervision over the activities of children on the Internet, to regularly change passwords for bank or social media accounts, and to avoid accessing suspicious messages or those which have unrecognized attachments. Experts have pointed out that certain smartphone programs or apps, made specifically for use during the pandemic, may be compromised with malware, such as some maps showing statistical data and information on the spread of the virus around the world.
Finally, we are encouraged that in any situation that we perceive to be dangerous, we should contact law enforcement.
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