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How organised sextortion fraudsters could ramp up efforts to target the lonely this Christmas

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Lonely, vulnerable men spending Christmas alone this year should be wary of falling victim to the growing number of organised criminal gangs that are becoming involved in online sextortion blackmail scams. Police in the UK this morning said sextortion fraudsters are likely to up their activity levels over the festive period, conscious of the fact that many people passing the holidays alone will be more prone to seeking out virtual company online at this time of year. In a bid to make members of the public more aware of the scam, which has been growing in popularity over recent years, Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA) yesterday released a new animation that explains how people are targeted by sextortion fraudsters, and what action they should take if they face blackmail.

Sextortion scammers set up bogus profiles on social media platforms and dating sites looking to attract lonely people in search of forming a relationship online. The fake profiles typically include pictures of attractive young women stolen from elsewhere on the internet, which are used as a means by which to draw the attention of men looking for love. While women can and do fall for sextortion scams, the majority of victims are men, with fraudsters generally more likely to target lonely females in romance scams, which often play out over a much longer period of time. After spending a short period gaining a victim’s trust once initial contact has been made, sextortion scammers persuade their targets to take their clothes off and perform sex acts in front of a webcam. As soon as this has been done, the fraudsters immediately drop their pretence and threaten to post the resultant footage online for the victim’s friends and families to see if a ransom is not paid. If the blackmailers get their money, they typically always come back for more, knowing that a victim who hands over cash once will likely do so again. On some occasions, victims have made multiple payments before realising their tormentors will just keep coming back for more.

While some cases of sextortion involve lone offenders operating independently behind a single computer screen, organised criminal gangs are increasingly becoming involved in the scam, setting up call centre-style operations in countries such as the Philippines from which multiple blackmailers target as many potential victims as possible, hoping that they bite. Cases have been reported in which scammers have managed to obtain the email addresses of a victim’s friends and family, and have threatened to distribute compromising webcam footage should a payment not be made. Investigators in both the UK and the US have reported a rising number of sextortion cases over the past few years, but believe the problem could be considerably more widespread than figures suggest, mainly on account of the fact that victims are often too embarrassed to report what has happened to them.

For some victims, falling for a sextortion scam can prove deadly, with British police claiming to be aware of at least five young men who have taken their own lives having been blackmailed over compromising webcam footage of themselves. In some cases, sextortion blackmailers have even been known to encourage their victims to commit suicide if they are unable to pay up. In August last year, a Romanian man was jailed for four years in his home country after being convicted of being behind a sextortion scam that resulted in a Northern Ireland teenager killing himself. Iulian Enache was convicted of tricking 17-year-old Ronan Hughes into sharing compromising pictures of himself online. Ransom demands from a gang Enache is said to have been a member of pushed Hughes to take his own life in June 2015.

While the successful prosecution of sextortion scammers is rare, the Hughes case demonstrates that investigators can secure convictions if they are made aware of these types of offences. Enache was caught after specialist cyber crime investigators from Northern Ireland were able to trace the computer from which he sent his blackmail threats to the teenager. In its new campaign, the NCA stresses the importance of victims coming forward as soon as possible. If you are targeted in a sextortion scam this Christmas, police recommend that you refuse to pay any money demanded, cut off all contact with the fraudsters attempting to blackmail you, and get in touch with police at the earliest opportunity. As well meaning that the criminals who targeted you might be caught and brought to justice, reporting your experience could also make it less likely that somebody else will fall victim to the same scam. While being aware of signs you might be about to fall victim to a sextortion blackmail attempt is the best way of keeping yourself safe, the fact that the crime is becoming more of a recognised problem means law enforcement agencies are now better placed to help you should you find yourself being blackmailed.

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Why drug trafficking cartels favour smuggling their illicit cargo in consignments of fruit

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One of the biggest issues South American drug cartels must constantly grapple with is the difficulty of getting their product safely into the countries in which they will stand the best chance of making the most money. With last year’s Global Drug Survey revealing that a gram of cocaine worth €5.40 ($6.10) in Colombia can fetch up to €211.70 in New Zealand, it is not difficult to see why trafficking networks put so much time and effort into coming up with new and ingenious ways of slipping their illicit cargo past customs officials who guard the borders of their most profitable marketplaces. Over recent weeks and months, there have been reports of South American gangs hiding narcotics in fake stones and impregnating drugs into plastic pellets before shipping them into Europe.

Traffickers from the region have even been known to pay corrupt vets to implant packages of heroin into puppies’ stomachs before flying the young dogs to the US and slicing them open in order to retrieve the illegal substance. But alongside the need for constant innovation, South American drug cartels have a small number of tried and tested smuggling methods they have stuck with through thick and thin over recent years. Perhaps one of the most popular of these is smuggling drugs concealed inside shipments of perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables, which recent seizures suggest remains a favourite among South American drug gangs.

Just days ago, China’s state-backed Xinhua news agency reported that Bulgarian customs officers had discovered almost 76kgs of cocaine said to be worth nearly $3 million concealed inside a shipment of fruit in the port city of Burgas. Local prosecutors said the haul was found by investigators inside four boxes of fruit at a warehouse in the city that were said to have arrived as part of a larger shipment at the end of July. In a statement, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior said the drugs had been wrapped in lead foil in order to make them harder for border officers to detect.

In February, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said its officers had discovered more than half a tonne of cocaine estimated to be worth more than $19 million hidden inside a shipment of fresh pineapples that had arrived in Georgia by boat from Colombia. CBP agents located 450 packages containing white powder among the pineapples, which tests later confirmed was cocaine. Last September, the National Crime Agency, which is routinely referred to as the UK’s FBI, announced that it had impounded cocaine and heroin estimated to be worth £27 million ($32.45 million) that was discovered stashed away in a truckload of vegetables at a port in north Lincolnshire.

Prior to this, investigators in Spain last April discovered a staggering nine tonnes of cocaine estimated to be worth more than €285 million among hundreds of boxes of bananas on a shipping container that arrived from Colombia at Algeciras port in the southeast of the country. It is thought that this shipment was organised by a notorious Colombian trafficking cartel known as the Gulf Clan.

One of the main reasons drug traffickers favour concealing their illicit cargo inside shipments of perishable goods is because items such as fruit and vegetables are often fast-tracked through customs checks on account of their short shelf life. On top of this, South America is a major producer of several exotic fruits that are exported in large quantities to the markets the cartels want to reach, offering smugglers plenty of opportunity to hijack legitimate shipments to major retailers. Back in April of this year, employees of German discount supermarket Aldi discovered around half a tonne of cocaine that had been hidden a large consignment of bananas brought into the country from Latin America.

In the majority of cases, legitimate fruit exporters and their customers will have no knowledge of the fact that their shipments are being used to smuggle huge quantities of drugs halfway across the world. South American cartels routinely employ corrupt customs staff at the point of departure to conceal their illicit cargo inside legitimate consignments of perishable goods, and others at the point of arrival to extract them. Described as “rip-off modality” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this smuggling method requires corrupt staff at the point of departure to position drug consignments in an easily accessible position inside a shipping container before resealing it, ensuring that their counterparts at the other end are able to gain easy access to the illicit cargo.

It is likely that something would have gone wrong somewhere along the line when drugs are discovered in shipments of fruit by supermarket workers, although it is plausible that corrupt workers could be employed by trafficking cartels at any point along the supply chain. Either way, the fact that it is still so routine for law enforcement agencies to intercept shipments of drugs concealed inside consignments of fruit suggests that this smuggling method remains a long way from falling out of favour with the trafficking cartels.

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Opinion

Labelling the UK government’s fried chicken box campaign as ‘racist’ does nothing to steer young people away from knife crime

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It was reported earlier this week that UK Parliament’s Youth Select Committee had been told that drug gangs are grooming children to transport and sell substances such as heroin and crack cocaine on their behalf by buying them meals at fast food outlets such as fried chicken restaurants. After befriending young people and treating them to portions of chicken and chips, gang members are said to ask their victims to return the favour by helping them ply their illicit trade, according to written evidence from the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales.

The warning came just weeks after community group London Grid for Learning launched a campaign to raise awareness of the manner in which co-called county lines gangs are using this method to recruit young people to sell drugs for them. A poster produced by the organisation intended to be displayed in “chicken shops” warned young people that anybody who befriends them and buys them food will most likely ask that they do something to repay that generosity.

County lines activity, which involves urban UK gangs recruiting young people to travel to small towns and rural areas to sell drugs on their behalf, is widely recognised as major driver of Britain’s spiralling violent crime crisis. Currently, young people are being stabbed to death across the UK on an almost daily basis. Children recruited into these types of gangs are not only encouraged to dish out violence to rival dealers themselves, but can also face the prospect of serious physical reprisals if they fail to do what their gang leaders expect of them or lose the drugs they have been charged with selling.

What with there being a clear link between the grooming of children by county lines gangs in fast food restaurants and the violent world victims can go on to find themselves caught up in, one might imagine that any action by the British government to tackle the issue would be considered a positive step. Not so.

Given the evidence that gangs are targeting children in British fast food restaurants in the manner outlined above, a UK government campaign involving anti-knife violence messages being printed on boxes used by chicken shops seems an inordinately sensible idea. The British Home Office has teamed up with restaurant chains including Chicken Cottage, Dixy Chicken and Morley’s, creating food boxes that direct diners to explore the stories of young people who have turned their backs on violent crime to pursue more worthwhile activities.

As these types of eateries can be locations at which children and young people can be groomed into a life of violent crime, what better place to direct messages that might prevent them from becoming victims? But no. Numerous campaigners and opposition politicians are falling over themselves to label the initiative as racist, despite the fact that it makes no overt suggestion that any one ethnicity is more prone to becoming involved in violent crime than another.

Opponents of the idea argue that it plays on an old trope that some people of colour have a particular fondness for fried chicken, extrapolating from this the implication that the campaign is implicitly linking violent crime with not being white, and being from an afro-Caribbean background in particular. The fact that people who are convicted of carrying a knife in England and Wales disproportionately come from non-white backgrounds aside, immediately screaming “racist” from the side-lines when efforts are made to reduce the butchery that is currently blighting the UK’s streets helps nobody, except those looking to score cheap political points.

As demonstrated, clear evidence suggests that these types of fast food outlets are breeding grounds for violent gang activity, regardless of the actual or perceived ethnicity of their patrons. As such, it surely makes sense to target anti-violent crime messages at the often young people who frequent them. Or should the government place similar messaging on napkins used for afternoon tea at the Savoy?

With limited resources, it makes sense for the UK government to target campaigns such as this where they are most likely to be effective. Reductively calling policymakers racist for doing so is the worst type of political point scoring, and does nothing to further the fight against the tsunami of violent crime that is currently enveloping the UK. Instead of trying to find fault with any particular issue or policy on the grounds of race in any given circumstance, critics of the initiative would perhaps do well to come up with their own ideas about tackling the issues highlighted in the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales’ evidence to the Youth Select Committee.

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The stiff consequences and hard times that can face users of fake Viagra

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Since it was first approved for use back in 1998, erectile dysfunction treatment Viagra has become one of the most iconic prescription drugs of modern times. More than 20 years on, the little blue pill remains very much at the forefront of public consciousness, despite the fact that numerous other treatments for impotence are available. With Pfizer’s patent for Viagra expiring back in 2012, men who require the drug can now get their hands on much cheaper generic versions for a fraction of the price of the original. In some countries, they can even buy a Pfizer product named Viagra Connect over the counter. But while Viagra and other drugs like it have never been so easy to get hold of in most parts of the world, bizarrely, the illicit trade in fake versions of the medicine is thriving, which is bad news for people who choose to take these counterfeit pills.

With Viagra being one of the most faked drugs in the world, those who would rather avoid having to see their doctor for a prescription or face the embarrassment of buying it at their local pharmacy face a high chance of being sold a counterfeit version if they choose to source it from a dodgy online pharmacy or a drug dealer, many of whom have taken the enterprising decision to add erectile dysfunction pills to the list of items they sell. In fact, a study published in 2012 revealed that 77% of Viagra tablets sold online were fake.

It was reported this week that the UK’s Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had said that it had seized illicit Viagra worth more than £50 million ($60.36 million) over the course of the past five years. In 2018 alone, some 4.7 million unlicensed Viagra pills were seized by the agency, which was up from around 4.6 million in 2017. In Canada, the vast majority of the nearly 5,500 packages of counterfeit pharmaceuticals that were brought into the country between April 2016 and March 2017 were reported to have been sexual enhancement drugs such as counterfeit Viagra. Back in December of last year, experts warned that bogus erectile dysfunction pills were putting people’s lives at risk in the United Aran Emirates, with representatives from Pfizer noting that Viagra was the most commonly seized counterfeit drug in the country.

Counterintuitively, it seems that the problem of fake Viagra has grown as people’s ability to access the drug legitimately has increased. This phenomenon is particularly surprising when the potential consequences of consuming fake erectile dysfunction treatments are relatively widely known. Apart from the fact that many who purchase bogus pills run the risk that their tablets will not contain Viagra’s active ingredient Sildenafil, which would result in the desired effect not being achieved, oftentimes counterfeit impotence treatments can be made up of substances that could cause all manner of unpleasant effects, up to and including death.

According to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Health in 2012, fake Viagra pills seized in various locations across the world have been found to contain the likes of paint, amphetamine, printer ink, antifungal medication and talcum powder. Counterfeit erectile dysfunction tablets have also been known to be made up of lead and rat poison. Taking pills that contain these ingredients can result in liver damage, strokes, heart attacks and loss of life.

Despite all this, the black market in bogus Viagra pills is going from strength to strength, with seizures rocketing in many parts of the globe. In September 2016, police in Poland revealed they had discovered what was believed to be the world’s largest illegal fake Viagra pill factory, seizing some 100,000 counterfeit erectile dysfunction tablets from a location in the city of Bydgoszcz. In some cases, erectile dysfunction tablets available on the black market do contain the active ingredient that users desire, but these are often versions of the drugs from countries such as India that are not approved for use in the West, and do not have to pass the rigorous safety checks medicines produced in some other countries are subjected to. As a result, these can sometimes contain either too much or too little active ingredient.

In rare cases, Viagra purchased from illicit sources can be the genuine article, having been diverted from legitimate pharmaceutical supply chains. But even then, users could suffer undesirable side effects if they have particular medical conditions or are on other types of medication. At the end of the day, with erectile dysfunction treatments now being so cheap and relatively freely available, it is a wonder that anybody would take the risk of swallowing what could be a fake Viagra tablet, regardless of how pressing the need to take the drug might be.

 

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