Posted on Feb 07, 2021
"It is known that Organised Crime Groups are among the most resilient adversaries the UK faces, quick to exploit opportunities on a transnational scale. This was shown to be particularly true in how quickly fraudsters adapted to the opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic." - The Silent Threat: The Impact of Fraud on UK National Security, Helena Wood, Tom Keatinge, Keith Ditcham & Ardi Janjeva (Royal United Services Institute, January 2021).
From simple "click here for a cure" email scams, fake offers of coronavirus tax refunds purportedly from the UK government, and groups or individuals claiming to represent the World Health Organization soliciting donations Wood et al. identify means by organised crime groups (OCGs) moved to exploit the pandemic.
A BBC investigation in September 2020 found criminals have been setting up fake businesses on an industrial scale and successfully applying for government-backed Covid emergency loans of up to £50,000 with no intention of paying the money back.
In France, the government launched a "temporary unemployment" scheme in late March 2020 to prevent companies from going bankrupt or cutting jobs due to the pandemic and the strict lockdown. Within one month 13.6 million workers had registered for the scheme.
By July, investigations first launched by authorities in Toulouse and Limoges revealed that 13 of France's 16 regional offices of the ministry for labour "were confronted with massive fraud in the payment of compensation".
A similar situation was reported in Belgium where investigations revealed cases of identity theft, as well as details of employers who turn out to be shell companies with no real economic activity. According to the federal prosecutor’s office, the illegal aid could amount to €2 million. 25 arrests were reported in December in relation to such fraudulent claims.
In the same month, Catherine De Bolle, executive Director of Interpol and formerly chief of federal police in Belgium, warned that OGGs would attempt to use the campaign of vaccination against Covid-19 to carry out a campaign of vaccine fraud.
She told German media group Funke-Mediengruppe “We have already sent a warning to the Member States, calling on them to be very vigilant. There is a real risk that criminal groups are trying to exploit the need for vaccine for their crimes.”
Although the full scale of the impact of organised crime on UK coronavirus support schemes is yet to be revealed, one high-profile incident was revealed in the North Rhine–Westphalia region of Germany. Here, the state government paid out over €2.3 billion in a day as part of its economic recovery strategy but had to pause its activity within a week after it was found that more than 90 fake websites had been scraping masses of data from companies applying for emergency grants and diverting money into criminal hands.
Wood et al. argue that fraud is under-reported, and where uncovered criminal charges often relate to other aspects of the case.
It was reported in April 2020 that German law enforcement had investigated an individual in Berlin, with links to a militant Islamist movement, for ‘exploiting the corona-crisis’ and defrauding the support scheme of €18,000, which he had claimed from IBB, Berlin’s development bank.
The man claimed to be running a business that was suffering because of the coronavirus-related shutdown, when in fact he was living on benefits. Officers searched his flat and confiscated cash and electronic devices.
Due to the complexities of meeting evidential thresholds for terrorism the ultimate criminal justice response by the authorities in this case was a fraud charge.
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