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Cybercrime only small part of growing organized criminality

Jefferson Chase
May 16, 2017

WannaCry may be hogging the headlines, but globalization has yielded an astonishing range of criminal activities. And the definition of organized crime - as well as the methods used to fight it - haven't kept pace.

Crystal Meth / Drogen / Methylamphetamin / Zollfahndung
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The biggest business in the world" - that's how the head of Germany's Forum for Networked Security, Thomas Franke, characterizes organized crime.

The group unveiled a new study of the phenomenon in Berlin on Tuesday, and the news for law-enforcement officials, politicians and citizens isn't good. Organized crime all over the world is booming, generating between $870 billion and as much as $2.2 trillion (788 billion-2 trillion euros) a year.

Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but even the conservative estimates rattled off by the author of the study, law professor Arndt Sinn of Osnabrück University, are mind-boggling. Since 1998, for instance, the amount of illegal goods confiscated on the EU's borders has increased by almost 1000 percent.

Drug trafficking remains a massive problem, accounting for 36.7 percent of organized crime in Germany. But piracy is also flourishing, with everything from chicken eggs and to heavy machinery being copied, with various degrees of accuracy, and sold internationally. Fifty percent of all pharmaceutical products sold online are fakes.

"Pharmaceutical drugs are more lucrative than cocaine," Sinn says.

Infografik Organisierte Kriminalität Deutschland ENG
Cybercrime is only one of many forms of wrongdoing that are flourishing

Cybercrime, including blackmail schemes like WannaCry, make up slightly less four percent of organized crime in Germany, although it, too, is becoming more prevalent. So who's behind all the wrongdoing, and what can be done to combat it?

New crime for a new world

The study depicts how globalization has changed the nature of crime. 5000 organized crime groups are thought to operate within Germany, 70 percent of which are international. 180 different nationalities are involved.

"When we think about organized crime, we think about classic examples like the mafia godfather or motorcycle gangs," said conservative security expert and member of parliament Clemens Binninger at the report presentation. "One of the findings that we need to get to grips with is that organized crime is much more than this and is constantly evolving."

Thanks to the spread of online trade, the study found, 90 percent of all confiscations are now made on goods sent through the mail. That is one area Sinn says needs far greater monitoring.

More disturbing are the increasingly blurred distinctions between organized crime and terrorism. It's well known that terrorist groups like IS and al-Qaeda use the drug trade to finance themselves, and war-torn Syria is the world's largest producer of a copycat version of Captagon, an amphetamine used by government troops and terrorists alike to combat fatigue, fear and pain.

Help for would-be blackmailers

Ransomware cyberattack threatens organizations worldwide

Another new phenomenon occupying the grey area between organized and individual crime is cyber-blackmail of the Wanna Cry variety and other scams run by so-called "criminal experts." A whole secondary industry enabling blackmail has arisen.

"There's a tool you can download for free on the dark net - you pay 30 percent commission, if it works," says Sinn. "It's a box where you input a blackmail message and the email addresses of the people you want to blackmail."

Cyber-blackmailers and other criminals who use the Internet can work without a large network. Their flexibility makes them difficult to track down. It's unclear, for instance, whether the WannaCry ransomware should be treated as organized or individual crime.

"Just because the attacked affected 200,000 computers and 100 countries, there doesn't have to be a large-scale structure behind it," Binninger says. "The weapon - the software - is that powerful."

Exploiting everything promising profit

gefälschte Zigaretten in einer Lagerhalle in Hamburg
Consumer help will be needed to stub out crimes like cigarette smugglingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Even with more traditional forms of organized crime, law enforcement authorities face considerable challenges. Many of the world's pirated goods come from China and Hong Kong, but there is little political will for creating conflict with such large trading partners.

Criminals also exploit the difficulties the 28 members of the EU have in coordinating crime-fighting. Fourteen member states are currently parties to the 2005 Prüm Convention, which commits them to sharing DNA and fingerprint data bases, but states like Italy and Denmark have yet to provide such information. Human traffickers, in particular, have benefited from the cumbersome nature of EU law enforcement.

"Organized crime exploits everything that promises a profit," Sinn says.

Ultimately, the experts say, organized crime will flourish until individual and groups in civic society recognize the extent of the problem and refuse to profit from it. That includes everything from tourists not buying fake brand-name sunglasses on holiday to service providers checking whether their clients are on the up and up.

"Legal companies transport illegal wares," Sinn explained. "The principle 'know your customer,' which is familiar from money laundering, should be a guiding principle for business in general."