The UK and the rest of Europe is dealing with an unprecedented surge in organised crime as sophisticated multinational groups, including child sex abusers and counterfeit gangs, expand their networks, according to the British head of the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, Europol.
As MEPs on the Special Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering prepare to vote on Tuesday on actions to combat the criminals, Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, said that thousands of gangs are capitalising on the rise of smartphone and internet technology.
“There is a changing face of crime across Europe. Everyday crime is down but more sophisticated, more dangerous forms of crime are going up,” Mr Wainwright told the IoS in an exclusive interview on the eve of the European Police Chiefs Convention last week.
“There are at least 3,600 internationally active organised crime groups in Europe. It is a multibillion-dollar industry and organised crime is diversifying and spreading out into more and more aspects of people’s lives. The gangs are making more money in ways that are clearly harmful to society and on a scale we have never seen before,” he added.
Tuesday’s publication of the MEPs’ report and their subsequent vote on it will be the culmination of nearly a decade of trying to create a Europe-wide strategy to combat the growing menace of cross-border crime.
Liberal Democrat MEP Bill Newton Dunn, who sits on the committee, said: “We hope this report will make people sit up and say, ‘My God, I had no idea [organised crime] was so big’. Around half of Europol’s investigations have links to Britain.
“There must be more action. The Mafia, for example, is now all over the place and I’m sure they’re here in the UK. There are many other gangs using the advantage of open borders. Old-fashioned crime in the UK might be falling, but new organised crime is often not counted at all. Our report is a shopping list of actions that we want to see the European Commission act on.”
He is calling for the establishment of an EU commissioner dedicated to fighting organised crime.
Mr Wainwright, Europol’s director since 2009, has overseen a rapid expansion in the agency’s activities and a move to a new headquarters in The Hague, next to the UN International Criminal Court. He cautions against the need for more legislation, however. “There is no political appetite for a ‘European FBI’,” he said. “It is still the job of national crime agencies to make arrests. Our job is to provide them with the intelligence to make it easier for them to go after the right people.”
Europol chief of staff Brian Donald, an ex-Grampian Police detective from the serious crime division, said that Britain, like other European nations, has seen an “exponential growth” in organised crime in recent years. “The difference is the effort that the UK places on dealing with these issues – there are officers here from all the major parts of UK law enforcement who are tapped into that international business. It generates a huge amount of work,” he said.
Mr Wainwright and Mr Donald have pioneered an intelligence-led policing model that has painted a clearer picture of international organised crime. Europol has fewer than 800 staff dealing with between 15,000 and 16,000 operations, and technology continues to pose huge challenges. “Cyber crime, in all its guises, is a major phenomenon,” Mr Donald said. “It has had a meteoric rise in our priorities and is a perfect example of modern international organised crime where the criminals, their servers and the victims could be anywhere in the world. One of the cyber-crime gangs reported to us had 60 nationalities identified.”
Mr Wainwright concurred. “The scale is much bigger than anything we’ve experienced. The internet is huge and a particularly difficult place to police, because of difficulties in identifying a suspect, let alone chasing him down in a jurisdiction, which might be inaccessible.”
The volume of material relating to child sex abuse available online is “staggering,” he said. “As encryption technology improves and the ‘darknet’ becomes more accessible, they are exploited to establish huge networks exchanging the worst kind of child sex abuse material you can imagine. The level of depravity has worsened and the networks have got bigger. This is the ugly side of the internet and one of the costs society has to bear. The question is whether the balance is yet right as to what extent we should be properly ‘policing’ the internet.”
When David Cameron drew criticism earlier this year for announcing a crackdown on the “corroding” influence of online pornography, Mr Wainwright supported him. “I’d like to see more from privacy campaigners as to what a proportionate response should be. ”
He warned against those advocating UK withdrawal from the EU. “The public receives a distorted view of the EU. Without a doubt, in terms of police co-operation and fighting terrorism and organised crime, the UK derives significant benefit from EU participation. The European arrest warrant has allowed 4,000 suspects – many suspected child sex offenders, rapists, murderers and drug dealers – to be arrested and extradited from the UK, by a cheap, fast and effective mechanism. I don’t see that side of the picture being presented to the public.”
Despite an annual workload increase of 15 to 20 per cent since 2009, Europol’s €84.8m (£71m) budget was cut by 5 per cent this year – the first cut in its 14-year history. Despite this, Mr Wainwright remains optimistic. “You should never lose your optimism … we focus on things that really matter in fighting international crime: information exchange and the economics of organised crime. The counterfeit sector is worth €8bn, and cigarette smuggling €11bn; we think €100bn is lost in VAT fraud.
“This has a noticeably distortive effect on a free market-based economy, and governments are being deprived of taxpayers’ revenues. I’m surprised that people are not linking the need to fight organised crime with a need to help secure our economic recovery.”
Food and drug fakes
The spiralling rise of counterfeit “health and safety products” prompted Europol to form a new unit. Chris Vansteenkiste, from Europol’s criminal finances and technology team, told The IoS: “Gangs are moving from luxury to everyday consumer goods – washing powder, cosmetics, shampoo, razor blades, even fake condoms. How often will someone buy a fake Louis Vuitton handbag? But everyone buys washing powder and needs it regularly, so although per good the margins are smaller, it is of huge benefit overall. This is happening in the UK, in Belgium, Sweden, all over Europe.”
Gangs are also moving into the fake “life-saving drugs” market, Mr Vansteenkiste said. “More and more examples are popping up in the pharmaceutical chain. A lot of drug dealers have turned into fake consumer goods traders because they’ve seen the market is bigger.”
Lib Dem MEP Bill Newton Dunn said: “The amount of fake drugs coming in is unmeasured and gigantic. Some of these fake pharmaceuticals are so good that when you go into reputable high street chemists, you are not absolutely certain that what you buy is 100 per cent safe, but they never tell you that because public confidence would crash. Some of the fake pharmaceuticals coming in are bland but some are killing people.”
In the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, the growing threat of fake food continues to pose a “huge threat to consumer health”, the UK government has warned. On Friday it will host an international conference to support a joint Interpol/Europol investigation. “More than 30 countries and key enforcement agencies will focus on how to tackle the growing issue of fake and substandard food and drink, which covers both ‘fake’ branding of products as well foodstuffs not subject to proper public health controls,” a government spokesman said.