EU report investigates 'engines' for organised crime

A new report out this week has zeroed in on the use of fraud, laundering money and illegal sales as the key drivers of organised crime, and wants to step up its efforts to crack down on these three "cross-cutting threats."

One of the major elements in this year's SOCTA report from Europol singled out on the fraud side is document fraud, namely related to identification where fraudsters steal, manipulate or fake ID papers, with much of this done for terrorist groups.

The report has found that a lot of these fraudulent documents are being traded online, with an eBay-type site of illegal papers available from criminal gangs.

The Europol report gives last year's Berlin Christmas attack, where a Tunisian suspect deliberately drove into a crowd of people, killing 12 and injuring dozens more, as a major example of why cracking down on this is so important.

The suspect turned out to be rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia with alleged links to so-called IS, but is believed to have travelled throughout Europe using multiple identity documents under different aliases.

And the broader use of illicit online trading has been steadily growing over the past few years, the authors note, with the so-called Darknet – a place "hidden" on the internet that deliberately seeks to buy and sell nefarious services and goods using near untraceable funds – increasingly facilitating these sales.

Like traditional, legal online businesses such Amazon and eBay, the report warns that illegal, criminal-led online sales sites are too looking to upsize and make greater profits by growing their offerings.

"Virtually all illicit commodities are now traded online either on dedicated criminal online marketplaces or by exploiting otherwise legal online platforms," the report's authors explain. "The number of goods on offer and frequency with which new products become available indicates that the online trade in illicit goods is thriving and highly dynamic."

These illicit commodities include narcotics, such as cannabis, cocaine, counterfeit currency, as well as fake medicine, to endangered species and compromised payment card data.

Criminal services are also for sale here, key among them being cybercrime, where customers can access such services as malware coding, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) services, bulletproof hosting and anonymisation services.

But vendors are also now attempting to to hide illegal goods among legal products on online platforms on the so-called surface web – the version most consumers see but, just like an iceberg, is just the tip of a much deeper world, with the Darknet the very end of that iceberg.

"In some cases, surface web vendors redirect their customers to mirror sites on the Darknet or advertise their products using false product designations or descriptions," the report's authors say.

Money laundering is also available on these illegal sites, which itself relies heavily on document fraud, with cash being at the core of the money laundering business. Cash continues to be smuggled by couriers and, increasingly, by post and parcel services.

Typically, in exchange for a commission of between 5 per cent and 8 per cent, criminal syndicates offer complex laundering techniques and carry out the laundering operations on behalf of others. This in essence "cleans" the money for it to be seen as not funding illegal services, and is used by criminal gangs as well as terrorist groups.

But Europol gives an example of how it is cracking down here, and back 2015, it helped Spanish authorities in dismantling a Chinese network involved in the laundering of criminal proceeds from human trafficking for labour exploitation, the production of counterfeit goods as well as excise tax fraud.

Relying on middlemen and third parties, the criminal group had established complex corporate structures and various accounts to transfer money to China.

Between 2009 and 2015, Europol found that a European branch of one of these criminal groups had laundered more than €340m.

The report says that by tackling these three main threats, all of which rely on each other to work and boom and are fuelled by online services and technology, can help lower the threat posed by criminal gangs, and the funding of terrorist groups across Europe and the world.

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