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'Worrying' increase in online child abuse, Europol says

  • Europol executive director Catherine De Bolle at a pre-Covid-19 parliamentary committee meeting (Photo: European Parliament)

Europol has called the increased online activity by "those seeking child sexual abuse material" the "most worrying" aspect of the coronavirus pandemic's affect on crime in Europe.

Europol's executive director Catherine De Bolle on Monday (18 May) warned MEPs that children could be more exposed as they can use less secure online educational applications.

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She said member states' law enforcement agencies have seen criminals trying to access illegal websites, while citizens are "more and more" contacting child sexual abuse hotlines, and Europol has been following up conversations between child sex abusers on the 'dark web' - the hidden corners of the internet.

De Bolle said Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, has started prevention campaigns, for the parents and the children themselves.

She told MEPs that there is more online activity, which is often unprotected, due to the lockdowns and home-schooling, creating more opportunities for cyber criminals.

"This will have a significant affect on the way that child sexual exploitation develops," De Bolle added.

She said authorities dealing with prevention and education, private companies and law enforcement should come together to develop a new strategy on sexual exploitation of minors.

De Bolle said offenders have been making use of a situation whereby they have more time to get child sexual abuse material, and that more children are at home, sometimes unprotected, and often with online tools that were easily accessible for criminals.

The US-based nonprofit National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) said there is an increase of child sexual exploitation reports of 106 percent, compared to a year ago, which could be partly due to the global lockdown measures.

She also called for additional powers for Europol, including the possibility to have direct information-exchange with private firms, as currently the EU agency has to go through member states.

De Bolle told the civil liberties committee that "criminals seized the opportunity of the pandemic and used the fear of the population" to adopt their criminal business model quickly.

"We have all moved increasingly the online world, and so did the criminals," she said.

Cybercrimes have increased, with malware and phishing - tools to trick people into giving up their personal data or damage their computers - becoming more complicated, with sophisticated attacks and more diverse targets.

Criminals have set up domains related to Covid-19 for scams, and have targeted real crowdfunding campaigns when they see enough money gathered. Malwares have been increasingly distributed via video conference tools.

The sale of counterfeit and substandard goods is "booming", according to De Bolle, adding that the majority of illicit pharmaceutical products and ingredients come mainly from China and India.

There is a high demand online for protective equipment, and products that claim to treat or prevent Covid-19, along with counterfeit tests.

Meanwhile, physical theft has focused on lorries, especially the ones coming from airports and likely to be carrying medical equipment.

Burglaries have been redirected from homes to often empty commercial premises, and to vulnerable older people, where criminals disguise themselves as handyman or decontamination workers.

Illegal migration and human-trafficking has not been much affected, as smugglers adapted to the stricter border controls.

The pandemic had not have a major impact on drug-trafficking either, with supply routes, prices and distribution recovering quickly after the outbreak.

In Belgium, so far this year, 18 tonnes of cocaine have been seized compared to the 12 tonnes seized during the first four months in 2019, De Bolle said.

Crisis crimes

The Europol director warned that the looming economic downturn will provide ample opportunities for organised crime, as did the financial crisis a decade ago.

De Bolle predicted an increase in migrant smuggling as demand for cheap labour and labour exploitation could increase.

Economic and financial crime could also increase, including money laundering, corruption, banks and load fraud.

"Well-established criminal networks became stronger after the crisis, benefiting from weakened legal economies, often investing in legal businesses, legal structures and trying to buy real estate," she warned.

De Bolle added that information-sharing among law enforcement authorities is key to fight these criminal organisations.

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