Europol Recognizes Heightened Threat From Certain Criminal Activities in 2021: Report

April 14, 2021

By Anand Vasu

In their 2021 Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment, or SOCTA, Europol has identified the most serious threats posed by criminal organizations to individuals and businesses.

The annual report, put together by Europol after analyzing data from law enforcement in different countries, has concluded that the following areas demand most immediate and specific attention:

  • High-risk criminal networks (including corruption, money laundering, and the use of firearms)
  • Cyberattacks 
  • Crimes against persons 
  • Drugs
  • Fraud 
  • Property crime 
  • Environmental crime 

While these were not the only crimes that Europol warned about, these were named as potentially the most threatening in the current environment.

“The organized crime landscape is characterized by a networked environment where cooperation between criminals is fluid, systematic and driven by a profit- oriented focus,” the 108-page report said in its conclusions. “A key characteristic of criminal networks, once more confirmed by the pandemic, is their agility in adapting to and capitalizing on changes in the environment in which they operate. Obstacles become criminal opportunities and may be as simple as adapting the narrative of a known modus operandi.”

The report identified the ability to launder large sums of money and the use of such funds to corrupt key institutions as major threats. 

“High-risk criminal networks can use corruption as an intrinsic part of their business model and to target public servants or sectors in strategic positions. Corruption erodes the rule of law, weakens institutions of states and hinders economic development. Corruption is a key threat to be addressed in the fight against criminal networks involved in any area of serious and organized crime,” the report said.

“High-risk criminal networks in the EU fundamentally rely on the ability to launder vast amounts of criminal profits. For this purpose, professional money launderers have established a parallel underground financial system to process transactions and payments isolated from any oversight mechanisms governing the legal financial system. This parallel system ensures criminal proceeds cannot be traced as part of a sophisticated criminal economy, which allows high-risk criminal networks to flourish financially.”

While money laundering and organized crime fell under a more generalized, even systemic issue, there were specific threats that the report identified.

Cybercrime Surged During The Covid-19 Pandemic

The report defined cybercrime as any criminal activity conducted using computers, computer networks or information technology.

“During 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a surge in connections from private to corporate systems as telework became the norm in many sectors and industries. This development has made many corporate networks more vulnerable to cyberattacks,” the report observed.

In 2021, Europol successfully ensured the disruption of EMOTET, a Trojan first discovered in 2014 and later thought to be the most dangerous malware around.

“EMOTET was much more than just a malware. What made EMOTET so dangerous is that the malware was offered for hire to other cybercriminals to install other types of malware, such as banking Trojans or ransomwares, onto a victim’s computer.”

The report also warned that online child exploitation was on the rise.

“Online child abuse material can easily be accessed on all types of devices, including mobile devices. The widespread abuse of encryption tools, including end-to-end encrypted apps, has lowered the risk of detection by offenders. Offenders increasingly rely on anonymization services such as virtual private networks (VPNs) or proxy servers,” the report concluded.

“The number of reported incidents involving live distance child abuse has steadily increased in recent years. This development has further intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the lockdown measures imposed to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, children have been spending more time online unsupervised, making them more vulnerable to exploitation.”

The Rise Of Violence In The Drug Trade

The report noted that different groups of drug classes attracted different types of crimes and criminal organizations, but underscored that the one thing common across classes was violence.

“The use of violence related to the trade in drugs has escalated notably in recent years,” the report said. “The trade in cocaine and cannabis in particular triggered a significant number of violent incidents, which included killings, shootings, bombings, arsons, kidnappings, torture and intimidation.”

The report identified Cannabis as the biggest drug market in the EU. 

“Cannabis resin and herbal cannabis remain the two main cannabis products traded in the EU,” the report said. “The average potency of both cannabis resin and herbal cannabis has increased over the last decade. A higher strength/potency of cannabis increases its potential harm.”

However, the report also said that Cocaine seizures were on the rise and that the purity of seized cocaine was also on the rise.

“The majority of Member States report an increase in cocaine trafficking since 2016. The cocaine market has attracted a growing number of EU-based and non-EU criminal networks,” the report said. “More criminal networks have been reported as being involved in cocaine trafficking than for any other criminal activity.”

Exactly What Is Environmental Crime?

Environmental crime, as looked at in this report, involved the illegal transport and disposal of waste materials, some of which were hazardous.

The report found that waste trafficking in the EU was rampant.

“The most successful waste traffickers are those who control the entire processing cycle, from source to destination countries. Criminals trafficking waste between different countries primarily use legal business structures to orchestrate waste crimes. Often multiple companies are owned by the same individuals or by strawpersons,” the report said. “The legal business structures frequently change leadership and are often terminated after a short period of activity, as a new trading entity takes over the business. Companies operating different stages in the waste cycle are often located in different jurisdictions.”