The European law enforcement agency Europol says criminals are targeting a fearful public and affecting the fight against the coronavirus.
Last week, Europol officials reported that criminals are selling counterfeit products and falsely representing themselves as health care workers. They also accused criminals of attacking computers at a time when many people do their work online at home.
One Europol report noted a cyberattack on a hospital in the Czech Republic where workers carry out tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. It said the attack forced hospital officials to cancel planned operations on patients.
Organized crime groups are well-known for identifying new ways of earning money. The agency said that some groups have found new ways to trick people who are afraid of the virus.
Catherine de Bolle is Europol’s executive director. She noted that criminals have quickly seized the chance to profit from the crisis by changing their methods of operation or developing new ones.
De Bolle added that organized crime groups’ “capacity to exploit this crisis means we need to be constantly … prepared.”
Europol’s report lists four main forms of illegal activity: cybercrime, fraud, counterfeit and poor-quality goods and organized property crime. It noted that criminals make and sell high-demand products like face masks or medicine. Some may even act like medical workers to get into homes or businesses. Europol noted the relative ease of collecting personal information with so many Europeans now doing their jobs online at home.
Coronavirus-related criminal activity is not limited to Europe. An operation in 90 countries, overseen by international police agency Interpol, identified many suspects. They were seeking fast money, notably with the sale of counterfeit masks and medicines. The operation was carried out in early March.
Interpol said it halted the work of 37 organized crime groups, and seized 34,000 false and poor-quality masks, as well as more than $14 million in possibly dangerous medicines. The “corona spray,” “corona packages” and medicine are but “the tip of the iceberg” for this new rise in counterfeiting, the agency said.
COVID-19 causes mild health problems for most people. They develop a high body temperature and have difficulty breathing. But the disease can cause more serious health problems and death for others, especially for older adults and people with existing health problems.
Europol noted how one European company sent 6.6 million euros to another in Singapore to buy face masks and personal cleaning products.
“The goods were never received,” the report said. It did not identify either company.
Criminals also are a threat to individuals as governments order hundreds of millions of people to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus. There have been several different methods of fraud that criminals have used to get inside private homes. But they often involve someone acting as a medical official, running a “corona test” and providing cleaning products or informative material, Europol said.
In one European country, an individual was notified by phone of a family member hospitalized with the virus. The individual then received a middle-of-the-night visit from people who falsely identified themselves as doctors. These people wore protective equipment and even gave the victim a false virus test for the coronavirus.
European officials have warned the public to be careful about possible fraud during these unusual times.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that many people are spending increased time on the internet, for work or to just to keep busy at home. She said this means that criminals “exploit our concerns about the coronavirus.”
“Our fear becomes their business opportunity,” she said.
I’m Pete Musto.
Elaine Ganly reported on this story for the Reuters news agency. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
target(ing) – v. to direct an action or message at someone or something
counterfeit – adj. made to look like an exact copy of something in order to trick people
cyberattack – n. an attempt by hackers to damage or destroy a computer network or system
capacity – n. the ability to do something
exploit - v. to use someone or something in a way that helps you unfairly
constantly - adv. happening all the time or very often over a period of time
fraud – n. the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person
mask(s) – n. a covering for your face or for part of your face
tip of the iceberg – n. a small part of something, such as a problem, that is seen or known about when there is a much larger part that is not seen or known about
opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done