At least 5,000 international organised crime gangs are currently under investigation in the EU, Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) 2017 has revealed.
This number represents a significant increase since the first SOCTA was published in 2013, when it was estimated that 3,600 criminal organisations were being probed by EU law enforcement agencies.
Over a third of the groups – which Europol says are made up of individuals from some 180 countries – remain involved in drug production or trafficking, with people smuggling now representing the second largest illicit market in the EU.
Discussing the rise in the number of organised crime gangs operating in the 28-nation bloc at a press event to launch the report yesterday, Europol chief Rob Wainwright said: “This increase is primarily a reflection of a much-improved intelligence picture.
“It is also an indication of shifts in criminal markets and the emergence of smaller, more interconnected groups and individual criminal entrepreneurs as part of a more enterprising criminal economy, especially in activities taking place online.”
The report found that technology is playing an ever increasing role in the activities of organised crime groups operating in Europe, with many taking advantage of the dark web and the Crime-as-a-Service model.
Hidden websites are now the primary source of the materials required to produce counterfeit documents, and have become the go-to platform for semi-professional drug dealers, who can use the dark web to run criminal enterprises from their bedrooms, according to the SOCTA report.
Cryptoware – ransomware that encrypts victims’ files and demands a fee to release them – is now the leading malware in terms of threat and impact, according to Europol, which also notes that indecent images and videos of children are increasingly being produced to be sold on the dark web for financial gain.
Wainwright commented: “The technological capacity of organised criminal gangs is advancing all the time and will very soon be powerful enough to get through the defences of larger corporations like banks.
“The largest corporations will have to decide, as smaller businesses do today: Do you pay the ransom or not? It is a tough call and there are many aspects of that issue that have to be taken into account.”
The report found that people smuggling, which has increased exponentially in Europe over the past few years as a result of the ongoing migrant crisis, has become one of the most profitable businesses for organised crime groups operating in the EU – so much so that human trafficking is now comparable to the illegal drugs trade.
“While the migration crisis has not yet had a widespread impact on the trafficking of human beings for labour exploitation in the EU, some investigations show that traffickers are increasingly targeting irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the EU for exploitation,” the report says.
“Irregular migrants in the EU represent a large pool of potential victims susceptible to promises of work even if this entails exploitation.”