[…] During the spring, when many countries imposed lockdowns, traditional crimes such as shoplifting and burglary fell because shops were closed and people were stuck at home. However, cybercrime, domestic violence and antisocial behaviour rose – the latter probably due to breaches of Covid-19 restrictions. When lockdowns were lifted around June, these trends reverted to some extent.
Those who did commit traditional-type crimes adapted their ways of working. Armed robbers in California realised that face masks offered convenient anonymity, as did two fastidious men who held up a post office in Luton, England, sporting latex gloves.
Thieves coveted new categories of objects. Oxygen canisters were stolen from hospitals; food banks were raided. And though violent crime fell in general, during lockdown a new category of assault came into being: malicious coronavirus coughing. When the culprits are children, they risk exclusion from school. Adults, whose victims have included key workers, risk prison.
Children were more often the victims of violence too, including online and offline sexual abuse. School closures and a lack of alternative safe venues exacerbated the problem in some countries, says Heather Flowe, a forensic psychologist at the University of Birmingham, because children were either left alone at home when their parents went out to work – sometimes with access to the internet – or roaming the streets.
Disruptions to global supply lines have affected illegal as well as legal markets. Data is rare on the impact of Covid-19 on human trafficking, but experts feared it wouldn’t be good, and there are indications that they were right.
And though migration dropped dramatically when borders were closed, the push factors driving it are as strong as ever. “For people fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty, a possible infection by Covid-19 in a safe country might be seen as a risk worth taking,” says Chatzis.
Drug smugglers have had to navigate less porous borders, too. To begin with, says Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of the UK centre for drug expertise Release, the UK’s illegal drug market proved remarkably resilient. Many dependent users turned away from heroin toward synthetic benzodiazepines, not because the heroin dried up but because their income from begging and shoplifting did – and “street benzos” are cheaper. “People can buy them for less than a pint [per pill],” says Eastwood.
As their traditional markets in drugs and people dwindled, organised crime groups diversified, trading in personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceutical products and even funeral services.
Spotting a propaganda opportunity, in some places they extended their sway by stepping in to help where official responses to the crisis were seen to have fallen short.
In Japan, UNODC reports, Yakuza groups handed out free masks and toilet paper, while in Afghanistan the Taliban dispatched health teams to remote areas. Gangs in Cape Town, South Africa, called a temporary truce to hand out food parcels.
As new illegal markets emerged, the dark web embraced them. There was a roaring trade in PPE to begin with, and as early as March before a real Covid-19 vaccine was more than a glint in any pharmaceutical company’s eye you could purchase something masquerading as one for as little as $200 (though prices went up into the tens of thousands of dollars).
Were they sugared water? Experimental vaccines stolen from bona fide labs? Or concoctions made from people who had recovered from Covid-19? Nobody knows.
Occasionally, darknet vendors found some scruples. “You do not, under any circumstances, use Covid-19 as a marketing tool,” one darknet marketplace warned its users. “We have class here.”
The speed with which cybercriminals have reacted to the news cycle has been breathtaking, says Dupont. A front of phishing attacks, sometimes purporting to hail from well-known public health organisations, started in Japan in early February, swept into Europe in March, then invaded North America.
Cyber-attacks against hospitals and research labs followed a similar trajectory. Cybercrime surges are a recognised side-effect of disasters, but even the experts were blindsided by the scale of this one. “No one really thought that a biological virus would so quickly spur all kinds of digital viruses and that those two types of virus would be so tightly coupled,” says Dupont.
At the tail end of 2020, one criminal opportunity glitters more brightly than all the others: the Covid-19 vaccine, or vaccines, which Jürgen Stock, the secretary general of the global police coordination agency Interpol, recently compared to “liquid gold”.
A black market in any Covid-19 vaccine, real or counterfeit, carries twin dangers: people who receive it may behave as if they are immune to the disease when they are not, endangering their own and others’ lives; and it could throw a spanner in the works of ongoing vaccine trials, whose integrity relies on scientists controlling who gets the real shot and who gets a placebo.
In September, the crime scientists Graham Farrell of the University of Leeds and Shane Johnson of UCL warned of possible thefts of vaccine shipments, bribes and backhanders for preferential treatment from suppliers, and even the chilling prospect of deliberate virus-spreading “to prime the market”. They urged governments to resist the temptation to wave through light-touch controls on vaccine supply lines, fearing that these would only fuel crime.
Since then, several fake Covid-19 vaccines have been seized, police have taken down online ads for others, and there have been reports of vaccine thefts and cyber-attacks on organisations that will distribute the real vaccines.
On 2 December Interpol issued an orange notice warning that vaccine crime represented “a serious and imminent threat to public safety” and calling on law enforcement agencies globally to stay alert. Since fraudsters were already hawking supposed Covid-19 vaccines back in March, nobody thinks the threat is hollow.
As Farrell and Johnson put it, “we may be walking into a crime storm”.
V O C A B U L A R Y
impose lockdown – lezárást rendel el
shoplifting – bolti lopás
burglary – betörés
domestic violence – családon belüli erőszak
lockdowns were lifted – a lezárásokat feloldották
armed robber – fegyveres rabló
fastidious – finnyás
covet – vágyik valamire, megkíván
raid sg – kifoszt
assault – fenyegetés
culprit – tettes
sexual abuse – nemi erőszak
human trafficking – embercsempészet
flee war, persecution or extreme poverty – elmenekül a háború, az üldözés vagy a mélyszegénység elől
drug smuggler – drogcsempész
Begging – koldulás
extend sway – kiterjeszt hatalmat
call a temporary truce – ideiglenes tűzszünetet hirdet
phishing – adathalászat
hail from – származik valahonnan
surge – hullám, felélénkülés
counterfeit – hamisítvány
carries twin dangers – kettős veszélyt rejt
throw a spanner in the works – keresztülhúzza a számítását
bribe – megveszteget
backhanders – csúszópénz
deliberate – szándékos
prime the market – előkészíti a piacot valamire
fake Covid-19 vaccines have been seized – hamis Covid-19 oltóanyagokat koboztak el
fraudster – csaló (személy)