The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted crime and illicit economies such as organised crime, terrorism, street crime, online crime, illegal markets and smuggling, human and wildlife trafficking, slavery, robberies and burglaries.
The ‘Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime‘ has stated in a policy brief in March 2020 that while understanding the long-term impact at these early stages of the pandemic is difficult, somethings are clear – the pandemic has caused a decrease in some organized-criminal activities, while providing new opportunities in other areas, causing a change in the “organized-criminal economy” that may just be long term. The report states that the disruption caused by the pandemic has been exploited by some criminal groups as an opportunity to scale up their activities. There is a possibility of “the emergence of criminal groups as suppliers and ‘partners’ of the state in maintaining order”.
COVID-19 caused a reduction in many types of crime around the world. A report by USA Today on 4 April showed a decrease in criminal incidents (in America) since 15 March in nineteen out of twenty police agencies examined. However the report also noted an increase in domestic violence. Some police departments are intentionally arresting fewer people to prevent potential spread of coronavirus in jails; tackling the issues in alternative ways rather than make ‘physical arrests’. Associated Press reports that in Chicago drug arrests have fallen 42% since the shut down, compared with the same period in 2019. Overall the crime in Chicago declined 10% following the pandemic. This decrease is being seen across cities globally as restrictions were increased to contain the virus.
Counterfeit and fraud directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic has also been uncovered. In the beginning of March 2020, over 34,000 counterfeit surgical masks were seized by law enforcement authorities worldwide as part of Operation Pangea supported by Interpol and Europol. Police in India have seized thousands of fake N95 masks, raided shops selling overpriced masks and sanitizers, and initiated case against hoarders of personal protective equipment. In the United States individuals were arrested after impersonating doctors and demanding payments for treatment.
With more people spending more time online, cyber crime has increased. With work from home increasing, more and more corporate data is being accessed from homes that may not have the same level of security as office systems. The World Health Organization published a cyber security notice warning people of fraudsters imitating WHO employees.
An intelligence report compiled by the FBI’s Houston branch warned against the likely increase of hate crime incidents against Asian Americans, based on the assumption that a portion of the US public associate the pandemic with China and Asian American populations. They also referenced multiple incidents of hate crimes already perpetrated across the country such as three Asian American family members were stabbed by an individual who claimed the family was Chinese and spreading the virus.
In its magazine, Al-Naba, ISIS recommended that its members exploit the pandemic in order to carry out terrorist attacks. Some extremists regard the virus as being divine punishment for human sins, both in the West and in Muslim countries. The International Crisis Group said that the pandemic will harm international anti-terrorist efforts. In India, an advisory has been circulated among Delhi Police staff of a potential Islamic State attack on police personnel in the field in the form of a lone wolf attack or “stabbing, firing or hitting by vehicles”.
In countries like Italy and Spain, there has been a redeployment of Carabinieri and military troops respectively. The pandemic has impacted the criminal justice system. Also in the United Kingdom, as part of contingency plans, murder investigations may be limited due to the additional workload the pandemic is creating. Brazil has put anti-slavery enforcement operations on indefinite hold.
The pandemic has caused a disruption to various transnational operations such as a long-planned joint operation by six countries (Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s against organized crime and drug traffickers in the region. A reduction in legal cross-border traffic and restrictions on international air traffic makes long distance smuggling more difficult.