With offices in 194 countries and a network of Law Enforcement officials that spans the world, INTERPOL’s primary role is to facilitate police cooperation, tracking and gathering data on wanted offenders, criminal organisations, crime types, criminal methodologies and disseminating it through our networks rapidly and securely.
INTERPOL maintains a 24/7 presence monitoring current events globally, bringing together international experts from across the world to facilitate serious transnational investigations and to react to crisis situations rapidly and effectively. From the shooting down of MH-17 in the Ukraine, the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo and even the recent tragic blast in Beirut, INTERPOL response teams are on the ground to provide support, generally within 24 hours of a major incident. This gives us significant organisational experience and a high level, comprehensive view of criminal activities and trends as they emerge and develop as well as the ability to conduct analysis from broad datasets.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had differing impacts for public safety in different parts of the world. A number of independent studies, including those carried out by INTERPOL, have identified certain trends which are important to consider not only for Law Enforcement Agencies but also for all IOs and NGOs when working with affected communities and vulnerable persons.
We are all aware of how the pandemic has led to significant changes in societal behaviour across the globe. Large gatherings are far less common, people are spending more time at home, often confined in small homes with no ability to get out other than for a few, essential reasons. More and more activities are being done virtually including work, shopping and communicating with people we would normally associate with in person. People are becoming unemployed in many industries with no real prospect of work in the near future. In less developed parts of the world or in subsistence economies, many may turn to crime simply to survive.
This new context has led to changes in the patterns of crime. From the “Ndrangheta” to small scale criminals, a simple rule for law enforcement has always been to “follow the money”. As the pandemic changes how society functions and where the opportunities for illicit gain shift, so too do the activities of criminals and criminal enterprises.
Crimes : new trends
Fraud and Cyber-enabled Crimes
INTERPOL research has shown that many criminal activities in the cyber domain are on the rise, including the use of malicious domains, malware and ransomware. This includes the targeting of foreign workers whose families in their home country rely on regular cash remittances. Fraudulent and counterfeit Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medication has also become a significant money maker for criminal organisations, and this poses a significant risk for those working in affected communities who may be exposed to COVID-19 as result of using such PPE.
Drug and Property Offences
In addition, drug commerce has increasingly moved to social media, particularly encrypted applications or the darknet. Some enterprising syndicates have even used drones and food delivery services to deliver drugs to avoid lockdown restrictions.
With regards to property, whilst burglaries and opportunistic thefts like pickpocketing and ‘bag snatching’ have decreased dramatically (because everyone is at home), thieves are targeting factories or business premises which are more likely to be empty.
Crimes against vulnerable persons and communities
Online activity by paedophiles seeking child sexual abuse material has increased disturbingly and the pandemic has also affected the people who usually moderate and investigate this activity. This includes both moderators from private platforms and service providers as well as law enforcement (who may have been re-tasked to pandemic related activities such as contact tracing). The lack of these important roles can lead to delays in identifying and removing this material from networks.
In addition, due to the closure of schools, many children spend more time online for social as well as recreational/entertainment purposes. Pandemic lockdowns have also resulted in limited access to community support such as childcare, which means victims may have significantly limited access to people who would usually play a key role in detecting and reporting Child Exploitation offences such as their teachers and other adults.
When this is combined with the desperation of vulnerable communities, particularly from poor and developing nations who have lost all sources of income, there is also an increased risk of women and children being forced into abusive situations to create such material. We see that the commission and livestreaming of these offences has also risen, particularly in South East Asia.
NGOs and support focused aid workers should be aware that vulnerable persons in situations of reduced or no income are also being targeted by loan sharks, including refugees or irregular migrants.
Also of concern to those working in the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) field, there has been a significant rise in domestic violence cases as a result of pandemic-related quarantines, due to multiple factors including frustration, financial instability and the inability of victims to physically escape a situation. This also makes it even more difficult than usual to identify or report a crime which, even normally, takes place behind closed doors as victims have difficulty attending law enforcement or shelters to report the offence and/or seek help.
How to deal with these new trends?
Anyone working in the above-mentioned fields need to consider where they can place themselves to observe the potential indicators of such offences (changes in victim behaviour, visible injuries or simply their not being seen as much as usual). Prevention and Awareness campaigns have become far more important and should be considered when engaging with at risk communities and tailored towards the potential issues arising from COVID.
The establishment of effective family and community networks as well as regular contact by support persons and groups are key to maintaining that visibility. Whilst contact in person is always preferable, the use of online tools such as Whatsapp, Messenger, Skype, Zoom or other communication apps should also be considered if circumstances allow.
For those of us working in developing nations or with vulnerable persons and communities of any kind, it is important to consider how criminals could exploit them when designing and adjusting our engagement plans and methodologies. The trends and factors above should be taken into account when doing so.
Juan Castellaz-Faico, EMINP’19
INTERPOL Executive Official, Counter Terrorism Directorate, Interpol Global Complex for Innovation (IGCI)