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Internet giants team up to fight illicit online wildlife trade

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Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online

Some of the world’s biggest tech firms have come together to help prevent wildlife smugglers using online tools to facilitate the trade in endangered species.

Led by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Google, the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online is designed to stop poachers and traffickers taking advantage of advances in technology that have over recent years made their lives a lot easier.

Backed by internet giants including Facebook, eBay, Microsoft and Instagram, the initiative will see participants share best practice and work towards a goal of reducing the online trade in endangered species by 80% by the end of the decade.

In a statement announcing the launch of the initiative, the WWF noted how easy it currently is to buy items made from ivory, rhino horn and even live animals such as tiger cubs online.

The traders who sell these items are able to exploit the anonymity offered by the internet, and then ship their products using rapid courier services, opening up new opportunities away from the physical markets to which they were at one time limited.

Commenting on the new initiative, Crawford Allan, Senior Director of Wildlife Crime and TRAFFIC at the WWF, said: “Bringing these industry giants together is the best shot at systematically closing the open web to wildlife traffickers.

“Criminals are making a killing from selling rare species and products made from their parts.

“Inconsistent policies and enforcement across the web invariably create a ‘whack-a-mole’ effect, where ads may be removed from one site just to pop up somewhere else.

“These companies see the problem and are uniting to ensure an internet where traffickers have nowhere left to turn.”

The WWF is encouraging other internet companies to join the founding members of the coalition, which also includes Alibaba, Baidu, Baixing, Etsy, Huaxia Collection, Kuaishou, Mall for Africa, Pinterest, Qyer, Ruby Lane, Shengshi Collection, Tencent, Wen Wan Tian Xia, Zhongyikupai, Zhuanzhuan and the 58 Group.

These firms have committed to bringing about an end to the rapidly expanding unregulated online trade in endangered species and animal parts, which is playing an ever-increasing role in the deaths of more than 20,000 African elephants every year, and the slaughter of three rhinos every day in South Africa, where the animals are hunted by poachers for their horns.

The overall value of the global trade in illicit wildlife and animal parts is estimated to be worth over $20 million a year, which some analysts claim makes it the world’s fourth-largest organised crime market.

Discussing the search giant’s participation in the initiative, David Graff, Senior Director of Trust and Safety Global Product Policy at Google, commented: “Google is proud to partner with WWF as a founding member of this coalition, and to join other companies in working to protect endangered species from illegal wildlife trade online.”

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Convicted felon arrested in LA after police seize 553 illegally-owned guns

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553 illegally-owned guns

Police in Los Angeles have discovered a massive haul of 553 illegally-owned firearms inside the home of a convicted felon after receiving information from one of his neighbours.

The huge arsenal of illicit weapons was found after a two-day search of a property inhabited by 60-year-old Manuel Fernandez, who was arrested on charges of being a felon in possession of firearms and a being felon in possession of ammunition.

An initial search by local police of Fernandez’s home in the town of Agua Dulce resulted in the discovery of 432 firearms.

A follow-up raid conducted at the property in cooperation with federal agents resulted in the seizure of an additional 91 guns, along with computers, mobile phones, and hard drives.

In a separate swoop on a second address, 30 illegal firearms belonging to a female associate of Fernandez were confiscated.

Commenting on the discovery of the haul, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said: “This case is a testament to the community’s involvement in reducing crime and taking guns out of the hands of criminals.

“The swift response of our Palmdale Sheriff’s Station personnel and the assistance provided by our partners at the California Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) showed the positive result of our campaign ‘See Something, Say Something’.

“We are proud of the relationship we have built in the Antelope Valley area as we continue to build trust with the communities we serve.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department called for assistance from ATF investigators due to the high number of firearms that were recovered during the operation.

They helped trace the purchase history of the guns, and will further assist in the case by providing resources as it progresses through the courts.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, representing Los Angeles County’s 5th District, commented: “I applaud the Palmdale Sheriff’s station, the City’s Partners Against Crime and the Department of Justice who worked in conjunction on this effective operation and massive seizure of illegal firearms.”

The US Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign encourages members of the public to remain alert to and report any potentially suspicious activity they may see to local police.

The campaign is primarily intended to raise awareness of the indicators of terrorism and terrorism-related crime, and is said to have played a key role in disputing a number of potential bomb attacks.

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Italian police target organised metal thieves in EU-wide operation

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organised metal thieves

Police in Italy last month led a major EU-wide crackdown on organised metal theft.

Supported by Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) and the informal Network Against Metal Theft, the operation targeted thieves in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Britain.

Across the 12 countries that participated in the one-day effort, law enforcement officials ran checks on nearly 54,900 individuals, more than 42,200 vehicles, almost 8,000 environmental companies and scrap dealers, 589 border areas and 2,572 other hotspots, including harbours and rail transport sites.

The crackdown resulted in the arrest of 117 suspects alleged to have committed serious crimes, who were detained alongside more than 1,300 individuals who were convicted of minor offences and released.

Investigators identified a further 1,659 crimes, including 75 cases of theft, 60 of knowingly receiving stolen goods, 137 environmental crimes, 1,387 miscellaneous offences, and 2,763 administrative violations.

Officers seized nearly 358 tonnes of metal worth an estimated €890 000 ($1 million) during the operation, including almost 93 tonnes of copper worth around €540,000, and 983 solar panels and 140 vehicles.

In a statement, Europol said: “This action sends a strong signal from law enforcement authorities to metal theft gangs operating all over Europe and to the many scrapyards that accept all kinds of metal with ‘no questions asked’.

“The phenomenon of copper theft has taken a European dimension and it often affects companies operating in the transport, energy, and telecommunications sectors, disrupting essential public services and leading to significant economic and social repercussions and possible implications for security.”

The operation, during which investigators carried out real-time cross-checks against Europol databases, was conducted within the framework of EMPACT, an ad hoc management environment to develop activities in order to achieve pre-set goals in Europol’s fight against serious international and organised crime.

In May 2016, Europol revealed that police in Romania and France had taken part in an operation that resulted in the disruption of a major Romanian metal theft gang operating in France.

The effort involved 10 simultaneous raids across the country in the provinces of Ilfov, Teleorman and Galati.

Three suspects were arrested and a large quantity of evidence was seized during the raids, including 300kgs of iron alloy, cash and documents.

Earlier this month, China border force agents arrested 245 people on suspicion of being members of a scrap steel smuggling ring who were said to have illegally sold more than 2.4 million tones of metal to buyers across Southeast Asia.

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How paedophiles, sex traffickers and blackmailers freely use the surface web to exploit victims

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paedophiles, sex traffickers and blackmailers

Drug dealers who once felt safe to operate on the dark web have found to their cost over recent years that hidden online marketplaces may not offer the anonymity and protection they once thought they might. The closure of the likes of Hansa and AlphaBay and the arrest of illicit marketplace admins and moderators such as bearded hipster Gal Vallerius and AlphaBay boss Alexandre Cazes have prompted many dealers to abandon the dark web in favour of surface web platforms and applications that ironically seem to offer more protection from the prying eyes of police and other law enforcement authorities.

Paedophiles and child porn distributors have also had their fingers burned on the dark web following the infiltration by police of the world’s largest child porn hidden website, prompting them and other sex offenders to focus on ways of using surface web tools to facilitate their crimes. As has proven to be the case with drugs, weapons and human trafficking, big technology firms have done little to rid their networks of criminals who carry out a range social media-enabled sex offences, whether they involve children or adults. A failure to crack down on this type of activity is resulting in misery for victims across the globe, some of whom end up taking their own lives as a result of being targeted by online predators.

Live child sex abuse streaming

The spread of cheap, fast and reliable internet access in countries in Southeast Asia and South America has resulted in the rise of livestreamed child sex abuse shows, during which paedophiles from across the globe can send instructions to vulnerable young victims who are forced to carry out the degrading acts they request in front of webcams. Taking advantage of child exploitation laws that are much laxer than those that typically apply in most western countries, Southeast Asian and South American sex trafficking gangs lure young people with the promise of well-paid legitimate work, only to compel them to perform for foreign child abusers in squalid cybersex dens. These gangs are able to use surface web encrypted messaging apps such as Skype and WhatsApp to broadcast their livestreams, safe in the knowledge that the content they produce will be inaccessible to global law enforcement agencies. Even if the paedophiles who pay to watch the material they make are caught, sex trafficking gangs in these regions know the likelihood of them facing justice is slim.

Sextortion

Over the past few years, sextortion blackmailers have increasingly targeted social media users looking to meet potential partners and engage in sexual activity online. Often working from organised call centre-style environments, sextortion scammers contact potential victims on social media platforms such as Skype and Facebook, typically pretending to be an attractive young woman. After building a rapport, the fraudsters convince their victims to send them compromising images of themselves, either of in a state of undress or committing a sex act. As soon as they come into possession of the material they are looking for, sextortion scammers immediately turn nasty, demanding payment in exchange for not distributing the incriminating material to victims’ friends and family members. A number of UK victims are known to have taken their lives after being blackmailed by sextortion scammers. In a separate form of sextortion, paedophiles target mostly young women and girls to convince them to send naked pictures, and then blackmail them into performing degrading sex acts in front of a webcam for their own gratification. Both the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US and Britain’s National Crime Agency have recorded marked increases in reported cases of sextortion in recent years.

Online grooming

Paedophiles have long used the internet to both distribute indecent images of children and target victims to physically abuse, but the growing proliferation of social media platforms, smartphone apps and connected devices is offering them a much wider surface over which to operate – an opportunity they are taking full advantage of. As well as the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, online predators exploit messaging apps including Kik, musical.ly and Ask.fm to target potential victims, typically pretending to be young people themselves. In March, the UK’s National Crime Agency warned that paedophiles were targeting children on the hugely popular Fortnite game via the app’s text chat feature. Earlier this week, a British mother revealed how her son had been sexually abused after being groomed by a paedophile via his games console.

While big technology firms occasionally pay lip service to the protection of children and vulnerable people online, they spend a very small portion of their vast profits on making their platforms a less welcoming environment for paedophiles, sex traffickers and sextortion blackmailers. All the while they refuse to take any real action, it will fall to law enforcement authorities to do what they can to diminish the advantage online surface web tools have handed to these types of offenders. With this being an all but impossible task, the surface web is likely to remain a much more fruitful hunting ground for sexual predators than the dark web until governments force big tech companies to get their house in order and stop profiting from the suffering of the victims of online sexual exploitation.

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