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Illustration by Security Management

How COVID-19 Might Change the Criminal Landscape

The economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have changed how vast swaths of society and organizations worldwide operate—including criminal organizations.

In British Columbia, Canada, gangs and organized crime groups are changing their tactics. With increased social distancing guidelines, there has not been a noticeable increase in gang violence and drive-by shootings, but illegal drug prices have gone up, and police have seen drugs laced with more cutting agents because of a lack of supply, according to The Star.

In Vancouver, police have seen a consistent level of illicit drugs being sold, with gangs circumnavigating locked down borders to maintain their supply lines.

“Getting drugs to the streets has been the biggest challenge given how conspicuous this sort of activity can be with fewer people and cars around,” said Benoit Gomis, a researcher focusing on organized crime and terrorism. “It’s forcing them to think of other retail distribution avenues including online sales and courier deliveries.”

According to INTERPOL, criminals worldwide are exploiting the current pandemic to find new moneymaking ventures, including selling counterfeit medical products, fraud, and cybercrime.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, released a new report on 30 April that assessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on serious and organized crime in three phases: current, mid-term, and long-term outlook.

Current crime trends have fluctuated, with some of the largest jumps focused in digital crimes and fraud. According to Reuters, Italy’s crime rate was cut by two-thirds in March 2020, largely due to the government lockdown to address COVID-19. However, the Italian government’s interior ministry warned that easing restrictions could create space for criminal organizations to thrive as mafia clans use criminal loan-sharking or other illegal financing schemes to take advantage of companies and poor families trying to keep afloat.

Europol said it predicts that lifting restrictions and lockdown measures will see criminal activity return to pre-pandemic levels in the mid-term, but the crisis has created new opportunities. The agency said it expects to see increases in money laundering—particularly in the real estate and construction sectors, the use of shell companies, and migrant smuggling.

In the long-term, Europol forecasted that vulnerable groups and communities will become more susceptible to organized crime threats, and criminals will take advantage of economic hardship and uncertainty to recruit young people to their ranks.

Europol’s report, Beyond the pandemic: How COVID-19 will shape the serious and organized crime landscape in the EU, shared five key factors that could have a significant impact on crime during and after the pandemic:

  1. Online activities. As people spend more time online—whether for work or leisure—they are increasingly at risk for cyberattacks and fraud schemes.
  2. Supply and demand. Scarcity of certain goods, especially healthcare products, is driving criminal organizations to ramp up counterfeiting and the sale of substandard or fraudulent goods.
  3. Payment methods. With a shift toward online commerce, cashless transactions are increasing in number, volume, and frequency, Europol reports. This will likely affect payment preferences post-pandemic.
  4. Economic downturn. “Economic disparity across Europe is making organized crime more socially acceptable as these groups will increasingly infiltrate economically weakened communities to portray themselves as providers of work and services,” Europol noted.
  5. Rising unemployment. Job loss presents opportunities for criminal groups to recruit members, pressure compromised individuals to put their employers’ assets at risk, and infiltrate public and private sector organizations.

“Serious and organised crime is exploiting the changing circumstances during the pandemic,” said Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle. “From the onset of this crisis, Europol monitored these developments to help Member States understand and tackle these emerging phenomena. The full impact of the pandemic—not only on crime but also more widely on society and the economy—is not yet apparent. However, law enforcement should be prepared to be able to respond to the warning signals as the world deals with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now more than ever, international policing needs to work with the increased connectivity both in the physical and virtual worlds,” she added. “This crisis again proves that exchanging criminal information is essential to fighting crime within the law enforcement community. Europol, as the criminal information hub for all law enforcement organisations, will continue to play its part.”