‘Evolution in crime’: Global networks adapt to new coronavirus realities

‘Crime tends to survive and prosper in a crisis’

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Wednesday 25 March 2020 23:28 GMT
Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College predicts peak coronavirus in 2-3 weeks' time

As with other enterprises, criminals have begun the process of adjusting to coronavirus both domestically and internationally, seeking to profit from the crisis, but also incurring unexpected losses with lockdowns and borders shutting.

In Britain, so far, most of the rise in lawlessness related to the virus has been opportunistic - preying on vulnerable people and the anxieties of the public to carry out scams, as well as thefts, albeit on a small scale so far, of goods in short supply, including vital medical equipment.

There has, predictably, been a huge rise in online crime, with Action Fraud, the government law agency, saying they had received more than 100 reports of fraud in the last seven weeks - with losses reaching nearly a million pounds. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) reported the first Covid-19 related scam on 9 February, and a steadily rising number since then. The City of London Police have reported over 200 reports of virus-themed fraud attempts.

But other forms of Covid-19-related crimes are also being increasingly reported. The National police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) have said there have been thefts of oxygen canisters from hospitals and raids on food banks. Gangs have been targeting older people at home, appearing with official looking badges to take money to do their shopping, and then disappearing. There have also been a spate of reports of reports of people knocking on doors to sell fake hand sanitiser, face masks and even testing kits.

“Crises like this bring out some of the best bad sadly also the worst in humanity and there will be individuals who seek to exploit the pandemic,” said a spokesperson for the NPCC.

“That’s why it’s essential that the police have the resources and the powers to crack down on shameless, opportunistic crimes like this.”

Among the examples cited were of oxygen and nitrous oxide canisters stolen after a break-in at a locked unit at a loading area of Withington community hospital in south Manchester last Saturday. The following day paramedics found holes drilled into tyres of six ambulances at a vehicle preparation centre at Ramsgate, in Kent. The police are reported to be investigating whether this was a theft plot. A food bank in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, was forced to close last week after donations from a storage container, sanitary products and toilet rolls as well as food, were stolen.

Some businesses have been burgled after they have been forced to shut in the government lockdown. Wiseman’s Bridge Inn, near Saundersfoot, in Pembrokeshire, was one the targets. The owner, Russell Kemble, has also had to close a bed and breakfast service, a flat rental business. and a caravan park he owns, and says he fears similar break-ins there.

After putting video footage of the break-in on his Facebook page, Mr Kemble says he has been “overwhelmed” by the response. Fellow publicans and other businessmen have put notices on windows of closed premises to say that all cash and valuables have been removed. And they are using their outdoor exercise break to keep an eye on each other’s businesses.

There are also instances of vandalism with no monetary gain. In Bristol, two delivery vans were destroyed in arson attacks outside an Iceland store. Richard Walker, the managing director, said “at a time when home delivery is literally a lifeline for some vulnerable people, this is sickening.”

“People are going around checking locks and doors and doing a bit more informal policing,” he said.

The UK had one of the earliest links to pandemic-linked international crime. Frank Ludlow, 59, was arrested after allegedly attempting to sell fake testing kits to a number of countries. He was detained after customs officers in Los Angeles intercepted 60 fake kits labelled ‘anti-pathogenic treatment’ which had been allegedly sent from a post office near his home in West Sussex. Police said the kits are believed to contain potassium thiocyanate and hydrogen peroxide, both extremely harmful if used to wash or rinse the mouth.

Overall, crime groups are suffering in countries with lockdowns and movements limited. Even using houses which have been left empty by residents can cause problems. In Italy a senior Mafia fugitive was arrested after being on the run for seven months when he ensconced himself in a deserted house. Neighbours knew the property was uninhabited and called the police when they heard noises.

Closure of borders is also proving to be a problem. In Mexico, for example, cartels are struggling to purchase precursor chemicals needed to make fentanyl, which is used as a recreational drug mixed with heroin and cocaine.

Some groups elsewhere have tried to corner the illicit supply in much-needed items. A triad in Hong Kong started hijacking delivery trucks of toilet rolls as the demand for them soared.

Human traffickers in central American countries like Honduras have responded to the shutting of borders by raising prices with the claim that greater risks are now involved. There are reports of increasing numbers of Venezuelans trying to get into Colombia with the dire financial situation in their country. Despite the new obstacles, some analysts hold, the flow towards the US will increase with Donald Trump vowing to lift Covid-19 restrictions in the near future.

Keith Ditcham, director of Organised Crime and Policing at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said “the fact is that criminals in Britain and elsewhere have a source of income and they will need to find another source if that dries up,

“So I think in countries like this we are going to see an evolution in crime if this crisis goes on for a while. Burglars for example are not going to find many empty private properties at the moment and not many may want to risk breaking into occupied homes.

“We are already seeing a sharp rise in fraud where the criminal does not have to come face to face with victims. Then we have the drug trade. With the lockdown, clubs, music festivals and large parties will shut down. But there will be people stuck at homes, so there may be an increase in personal use. Of course, a lot will depend on supplies coming into the country. But a lot of it comes through container ports, and only two per cent of the global container trade is searched on average.”

Talking of the international scene, Mr Ditcham, who was a regional director of the National Crime Agency (NCA) in Europe and head of operations for the Americas, for the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) said: “One looks at the supermarkets with empty shelves in this country, and talk of food shortages, and then think of somewhere like Venezuela with the terrible problems they have been already facing. If people from there can escape to Colombia, they will.

“I think there may well be another movement for the US border after what Mr Trump has been saying, that he will lift the measures by Easter. That may not be the reality of course, but it will be an incentive for people to get somewhere without lockdown and more chance of finding some kind of earnings.”

Robert Emerson, a security analyst, commented: “It really depends on how long this crisis lasts. If it is another 18 months, as some medical experts seem to think, then we will see criminals adapting just as other parts of society will have to do.

“We are hearing a lot of the ‘Blitz spirit’, everyone pulling together. But the fact is that crime was rampant in the home front during the Second World War, not just the black-market, but crimes like looting, the courts heard more than 4,500 cases of looting in just one month in 1941 for instance. Some of the top villains of the 50s and 60s began their apprenticeship at the time. Of course this isn’t the war, but crime tends to survive and prosper in a crisis.”

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