Criminals exploit virus crisis to widen their activities

Exploiting public fears and the disruption of medical care provision during the coronavirus pandemic, organised crime groups are quickly seizing the new opportunities by selling counterfeit products, impersonating health workers and even hacking computers as many citizens do their job online at home, according to European law enforcement agency, Europol.

In one instance, a cyberattack on a major hospital in the Czech Republic where COVID-19 tests are carried out forced the cancellation of planned surgeries, Europol said in a new report released on Friday. "Criminals have quickly seized the opportunities to exploit the crisis by adapting their modes of operation or developing new criminal activities," Europol Executive Director, Catherine de Bolle said in a statement. She added that organised crime groups' "capacity to exploit this crisis means we need to be constantly vigilant and prepared."

Europol's report lists four main avenues for illicit activity: cybercrime, fraud, counterfeit and substandard goods, and organised property crime. Criminals manufacture and sell high-demand products like masks or medicine, impersonate medical workers to get into homes or businesses, and break into a gold mine of information with so many European citizens now doing their jobs online at home.

Coronavirus-related criminal activity is not limited to Europe. A March 3-10 operation in 90 countries, overseen by international police agency Interpol, dug out suspects seeking fast cash, notably with the sale of counterfeit face masks and medicines. Interpol said that it disrupted the work of 37 organised crime groups, and seized 34,000 fake and substandard masks, and more than $14m in potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals. The "corona spray," "corona packages" and medicines are but "the tip of the iceberg regarding this new trend in counterfeiting," Interpol said.

Europol noted the transfer of €6.6m by a European company to another in Singapore to buy face masks and alcohol gels, widely used now for cleaning hands to protect from the coronavirus. "The goods were never received," the report said. It did not identify either company.

Criminals also lurk at the doorways of private homes as hundreds of millions of people across Europe are confined under government orders to slow the spread of the virus. The fraud schemes used to get inside private residences to steal vary but often involve someone impersonating medical officials, conducting a "corona test," providing hygiene products or informative material, Europol said.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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