Fraudsters, cyber-criminals, organized crime groups and pedophiles are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to ramp up their activities across the EU, the head of Europe’s law enforcement agency warned on Friday.
While lockdowns in many countries have seen a drop-off in crimes like burglaries and street fights, Europol reported an increase in online crimes that aim to exploit heightened anxiety and the fact that so many people are working from home.
Some of the cyber-attacks have been highly coordinated, taking aim at critical infrastructure including a hospital in Brno, Czech Republic, that had to shut down its IT system after an attack that forced it to reroute patients to nearby facilities.
“We cannot forget what is going on in the criminal world,” Europol Executive Director Catherine de Bolle told POLITICO in an interview conducted via videoconference. “The criminal organizations are using people’s fear, using the fact that they are looking for information.”
With schools closed down across the bloc, Europol also noted an increase in child exploitation as millions of children spend more time online — leaving them exposed to pedophiles who have ramped up their activity. National police forces, meanwhile, have seen a drastic increase in domestic violence, with a jump of more than 30 percent reported in France over a week.
Popular schemes include fraudulent coronavirus tests, fake masks and sham pharmaceutical products being touted as treatments for COVID-19
“We have huge figures of people abusing child material online,” said De Bolle. “We receive different information from the member states that there is an increased online activity by pedophiles seeking exploitation material.”
Another “boom” area for crime: counterfeiting, as criminals take advantage of shortages and anxious people go online to procure health care products.
Popular schemes include fraudulent coronavirus tests, fake masks and sham pharmaceutical products being touted as treatments for COVID-19, the illness that results from being infected with the virus. Businesses in several EU countries have also been duped by false suppliers who never deliver orders.
“This is of course worrying because it’s about people’s health,” De Bolle said. “So it’s very important [when seeking health care equipment online] to check the website and to listen carefully to public announcements, because they know what [treatments] are existing or not.”
‘The grandmother trick’
The rash of coronavirus crimes — De Bolle said it was too early to say whether crime overall was up or down — is piling pressure on police forces that are already working to capacity enforcing stay-at-home orders. In some countries, the army has been called in to help the police maintain public order.
De Bolle and Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, both said that the added challenges of crime-fighting underscored the need for information-sharing across borders. “When the patterns [of criminality] are changing so rapidly, this shows the importance of enhanced digital capacity for law enforcement,” said Johansson, who added that her office aimed to publish a Security Union strategy in June, on schedule.
Among the sources of criminality, De Bolle said that both individual criminals and organized crime taking advantage of the situation. Asked who was behind some of the larger-scale attacks against critical facilities like hospitals and supermarkets, she said: “At this moment it’s too early to say that we have to deal with state-sponsored attacks.”
Europol’s report, which is titled “Pandemic Profiteering” and collates information from police forces across the bloc, puts special emphasis on the growth of cybercrime.
Rather than invent new schemes, cybercriminals had adapted traditional email “phishing” scams for the times by making them about COVID-19 or the coronavirus to draw attention.
The risk of cyber criminality has been exacerbated by the fact that millions of people are working from home.
“They are more and more sophisticated,” said De Bolle of the phishing scams, most of which aimed to install malware — malicious software — by getting people to click on files. “We are also seeing fake sites and fake news and fake news coronavirus solutions.”
While property crimes are down, Europol said in its report that an increase was expected as commercial establishments are vacated and people in cities depart to secondary residences. One scam known as the “grandmother trick” or the “nephew trick” involved fake doctors asking to be introduced into homes to administer a test for the coronavirus — only to burglarize the place.
“A lot of people accept this and let these criminals come into their homes,” De Bolle said. “We have different countries where this trick is being used, and we expect it to be used more in the future.”