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International pickpocketing gangs must be treated as serious and organised criminal networks

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International pickpocketing gangs

While most members of the public perceive pickpocketing as a petty crime, conducting the activity at scale can be a hugely profitable business for organised criminal networks. So much so in fact, that gang bosses in Eastern Europe routinely send cells of pickpockets out on to the streets of major cities such as London, Paris and Oslo to fleece members of the public of their cash and valuables. Taking advantage of EU freedom of movement laws, these groups are dispatched to target people in city centres, on public transport networks, and at major sporting events and music festivals.

The substantial sums of money that can be made from organised pickpocketing make it possible for gang bosses to regularly move the petty thieves who work for them around Europe as part of their efforts to make sure police in one location do not become too familiar with their faces. Thanks to the cheap and easy availability of budget air travel, pickpocketing cells can be sent out from countries such as Romania or Bulgaria to work in one location for a few weeks, before returning back to their home countries and then being sent off somewhere else.

In most cases, the foot soldiers used by pickpocketing gangs will be paid relatively small sums of money for their work, and are considered largely expendable by the bosses for whom they work. Conversely, those at the top of the criminal organisations that run these types of operations are able to fund lives of luxury, all the while keeping themselves at arm’s length from the illegal activities from which they profit. This makes it much less likely they will be apprehended by law enforcement. For the most part, the pickpockets themselves are vulnerable people such as the homeless or migrant children who would be better described as victims of human trafficking than organised criminals. Most often recruited from the streets of their home countries, they are sent out to thieve from people in the streets of Europe’s major cities, while typically living in extremely poor conditions themselves.

Instead of treating the issue as a petty crime, law enforcement agencies across Europe and in other countries are belatedly beginning to view this type of activity for what it is; serious and organised criminality that has the potential to fund other illegal acts. Earlier this month, Europol held a conference on the subject at its headquarters in The Hague, convening scores of experts from member states and beyond to share their experiences of tackling organised pickpocketing gangs. Delegates agreed that stronger international cooperation would be required to defeat the criminal organisations behind these types of operations, and that law enforcement agencies in different countries must become better at “exchanging information and to support each other in investigations, operations and regarding strategic approaches”.

Europol and its partners are right to take the problem more seriously than it has been in the past, with a number of recent cases highlighting how organised pickpocketing gangs are continuing to capitalise on the fact that the crime is widely perceived as being petty and low-level in comparison to other forms of organised illicit activity such as drug trafficking and immigration crime. In September 2017, police in Greece broke up a prolific Albanian pickpocketing gang, members of which were said to be raking in more than €3,500 ($3,910) a day while targeting visitors to tourist hotspots and on public transport in Athens. It is thought the gang may have operated in and around the city for nearly a decade. In Paris last year, members of an organised Bosnian crime gang that was thought to have made almost €3 million by forcing migrant children onto the streets of the French capital to thieve from members of the public were charged with running a human trafficking network. At the end of April, Extra.ie reported that organised pickpocketing gangs from Romania were flying multiple cells of street thieves into Ireland on budget airlines to target pensioners as they took cash out of ATMs.

Currently, it is all too rare that the leaders of the networks behind organised pickpocketing operations face justice for their crimes, the most heinous of which is arguably the exploitation of the vulnerable foot soldiers they compel to do their bidding. While arresting and imprisoning Individual street thieves much lower down the pecking order might temporarily slow incidents of this sort of crime in any given area, they are quickly replaced by the gang leaders for whom they work. If global law enforcement agencies are to stand any real chance of reducing organised pickpocketing on the streets of the world’s major cities, the practice must be treated with the same vigour as any other form or serious and organised crime, and that means going after the gang kingpins who profit most from it.

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Western nations must ban the ‘transplant tourism’ that is costing Chinese prisoners of conscience their lives

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transplant tourism’

Regardless of how wealthy you are, the likelihood is in most western nations that you will need to join a lengthy waiting list if you are told you require an organ transplant. Unfortunately, owing to a major shortage of organ donors in most countries, many people on these lists die before they can secure the new body parts they require. In the US, 20 people pass away each day while in search of a suitable donor, while in the UK more than a quarter of those waiting for a transplant can except to lose their lives before a suitable match becomes available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this pushes many transplant patients who can afford to do so to seek out alternatives abroad, even though the trade in human organs is illegal in most countries across the globe. This has led to the emergence of a thriving black market in harvested organs, which are typically taken from the bodies of vulnerable healthy donors.

While in many cases organ brokers source body parts from impoverished, poorly educated individuals in developing countries who are typically paid a paltry sum in exchange for their sacrifice, some donors are compelled to give up their organs against their will, a large number of whom die as a consequence of doing so. Many of these donors fall victim to the organised criminal networks that control the illicit global trade in human organs, but in some cases, nation states have become involved in the harvesting of body parts, and are profiting from the misery on which the trade is based.

Earlier this week, the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse warned that China is continuing to kill prisoners from religious minorities such as Falun Gong for their organ, despite having said in 2014 that it would stop doing so. A tribunal convened by the coalition found that transplant waiting lists at Chinese hospitals are incredibly short, and that as many as 90,000 transplant operations a year are being carried out across the country, which is a far higher number than government figures suggest.

The tribunal’s findings have piled pressure on western governments to ban so-called transplant tourism to countries such as China, and have resulted in calls for doctors and medical organisations across the globe to stop working with the country in fields relating to organ transplantation. But whether its revelations will result in real change anytime soon remains to be seen. While several western governments across the globe are considering legalisation to ban transplant tourism, there appears to be little urgency when it comes to pushing these new laws through in some countries.

In Canada, a bill that would outlaw organ tourism is currently awaiting Senate approval, but might not receive it by the end of the current parliamentary session. Over in America, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution back in 2016 that condemned “state-sanctioned forced organ harvesting” and called for a US State Department investigation and new restrictions, neither of which have been forthcoming. In March of this year, a cross-party group of British MPs called for a ban on UK citizens travelling to China for organ transplant operations, urging the UK government to impose similar restrictions to those imposed by Italy, Spain, Israel and Taiwan. Since then, no action has been taken.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph this week revealed that children and adults at risk of being killed for their organs are fleeing to Britain in greater number, albeit from a very low starting point. It has been reported elsewhere in recent years that terrorist organisations such as Daesh stole organs from captured enemy fighters to treat its injured militants, and that people smuggling gangs have started taking organs from migrants as payment for being smuggled into their countries of choice. Sad as it is, there is often little western nations can do to prevent practices such as these, abhorrent as they may be.

Things are different with China though. In the face of substantial evidence that the Chinese state is complicit in the murder of prisoners for their organs, the global community has a responsibility to make it clear that this type of barbarism will not be tolerated. Putting the question of whether it is ethical to allow people to willingly sell their internal organs aside for a moment, it surely cannot be right for a nation state to sanction the murder of prisoners solely for the purpose of using their body parts in transplant operations, many of which can cost many tens of thousands of dollars. While desperate people with the financial means to do so will always go to great lengths to secure the organs they need to stay alive, western nations in particular must do all they can to stop China profiting from a brutal trade that sees the country’s prisoners of conscience treated as commodity.

 

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Only a total ban on secondary sales can stamp out music and sports ticket fraud

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music and sports ticket fraud

Music fans and sports enthusiasts across the globe will often go to great lengths to secure tickets to events involving their favourite artists or teams, with a significant number routinely willing to pay multiple times the face value of tickets from a reseller should a concert or game they wished to attend have sold out. For many, the desire to get hold of tickets to these types of events can be so strong that their judgement can become clouded, resulting in some would-be revellers or spectators taking financial risks they might not in other circumstances. Organised criminals have become adept at exploiting this passion, raking in millions by selling sports and music lovers counterfeit tickets, often at hugely inflated prices. The illicit trade has continued to thrive for years despite frequent warnings from law enforcement agencies encouraging consumers to exercise caution when purchasing event tickets.

Appealing to music and sports fans ahead of the busy summer period, during which many concerts and sporting events are scheduled to take place, Britain’s national fraud reporting centre Action Fraud this week launched an awareness-raising campaign designed to encourage members of the public to only buy event tickets from authorised sellers. The organisation revealed that it had received 4,755 reports of ticket fraud in the 13 months to the end of April this year, noting that victims across the UK lost £1,654,888 ($2.08 million) to scammers over that period. This works out to an average of £365 per victim. Data recorded by Action fraud suggested that ticket fraud activity appears to peak over the summer months, with the agency observing a rise in the number of cases in August last year. Over in the US, a poll conducted by ticketing technology maker Aventus revealed last September that around 12% of Americans said they had bought a concert ticket online that later turned out to be fake. Some two-thirds of respondents said they worried they might get scammed when purchasing concert tickets on the internet.

The ticket resale market has become a huge business over recent decades, with companies such as StubHub and Viagogo raking in billions of dollars a year by providing a marketplace on which users can trade event tickets and passes. This has proven to be a massive boon to touts, who use bots to buy up large numbers of tickets to popular events before selling them on for a massive mark up. While these sites still suffer from problems related to the sale of counterfeit or unauthorised tickets, they have taken steps to address the issue, with some offering refunds to users who do get scammed. But while measures such as these might result in buyers getting their cash back if they are unfortunate enough to buy fake tickets, they cannot prevent fans being left disappointed and out of pocket if they travel to an event venue before realising the tickets they have are unusable. In May, football enthusiasts were warned that tickets sold on reseller sites for the Champions League final in Madrid, Spain, were unauthorised, and could leave many who had bought them unable to watch the game.

Away from online reseller outlets, fraudsters often set up their own fake ticket websites. Buyers who use these can expect to be sent counterfeit tickets, not be sent any tickets at all, or be told to meet a representative from the seller at the venue on the day of the event to collect their passes, only to find that nobody turns up. Earlier this month, a man from Illinois in the US told reporters how he had paid $433 for tickets to see former Beatle Paul McCartney, only to be turned away from the venue after his tickets were found to be bogus. In instances such as these, consumers often struggle to get their money back, unless they are able to take advantage of protection offered by their card provider.

It is perhaps most risky to buy event tickets from vendors on social media, auction sites or fan forums. But while many people realise this to be the case, sports and music fans can sometimes be so desperate to get their hands on the tickets they want that they are willing to take the risk. A poll conducted by UK bank Barclays in April of this year revealed that 40% of millennials in Britain would use social media to buy event tickets from private vendors, despite being aware that doing so is high risk. The survey found that 37% of millennial festival-goers said they had fallen victim to three or more ticketing scams, highlighting how easy it is for fraudsters to target this demographic. Scammers are also able to take advantage of social media by skimming information from images of event tickets that people post online. The organisers of the Glastonbury Festival in the UK this year warned buyers not to upload pictures of their tickets to social media platforms over fears that fraudsters could use barcodes and other information to create cloned passes.

No matter what measures are put in place by reseller websites or other platforms on which counterfeit event tickets are sold, the fact that sports and music fans are willing to go to such great lengths to see their heroes in the flesh makes it unlikely that the fraudsters will be going out of business anytime soon. The only real way to tackle the problem is to outlaw the secondary ticketing market altogether, but to do so would result in the destruction of a multi-billion dollar worldwide business, as well as the disappearance of a marketplace that works perfectly well for many people, even if it does allow morally-questionable touts to take advantage of people’s passion for the arts and sport. But without such a ban, people will continue to be conned by fake ticket vendors, regardless of how many campaigns are launched to raise awareness of the issue.

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The extraordinary lengths to which South American cartels will go to ensure their drugs reach the most profitable markets

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drugs reach the most profitable markets

Although cocaine production levels may have soared across South America in recent years, drug cartels based in the region face a constant battle when it comes to staying one step ahead of the global law enforcement agencies charged with making sure traffickers are unable to smuggle their product to markets in the west, where they are typically able to make the most money. In September of last year, a report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that cocaine production had hit record highs in Colombia in 2017, despite a peace deal being struck the previous year between the country’s government and rebel group Farc, and billions being spent on America’s decades-long war on drugs. But while rocketing production levels are certainly a potential boon for the organised criminal networks behind the distribution of South America’s most famous export, they count for littlie if the cartels are unable to ship their cocaine to wealthy nations in which the price they can charge per kilo rockets.

Last year’s Global Drug Survey revealed that while illicit substance enthusiasts could pay as little as €5.40 ($6.10) for a gram of cocaine in Colombia, those wishing to partake of a line of two in New Zealand would have typically needed to stump up €211.70. With such a huge disparity between what end users are willing and able to pay, it makes obvious business sense for drug cartels to get their cocaine to markets in which it can be sold for the highest price. To do so successfully, South American traffickers must consistently outwit customs investigators whose job it is to prevent them from shipping their drugs to the most profitable markets, and repeatedly come up with new ways of sneaking their product across borders to customers who have the means to pay the highest prices. As authorities become wise to each new smuggling method over time though, a steady stream pf ever more ingenious alternatives are required to take their place.

Fake stones

Earlier this month, police in Spain revealed they had arrested 11 suspected drug smugglers after customs officers discovered nearly a tonne of cocaine hidden inside specially-made bogus stones that had been imported into the country from South America.  The conspiracy was broken up after undercover investigators tracked members of the gang behind the trafficking operation, which is said to have had links to a domestic stone importation firm. Police raided a warehouse in Madrid after the stones were transferred there from the port of Barcelona following their arrival on a boat that had travelled from Ecuador. After breaking up the fake stones with hammers, detectives found 785 packages of cocaine, each of which was estimated to contain in excess of 1kg of the drug.

Impregnated plastic pellets

Separately, Spanish investigators last month detained 12 members of a South American drug trafficking network that imported cocaine-impregnated plastic pellets into the country, before extracting the drugs at three specialist labs in Madrid and Toledo. The gang had flown over three experts from Colombia who worked round the clock to separate the cocaine from the pellets, into which the drug had been injected so as it could be more easily taken thorough customs checks while being transported from its country of origin and into Spain. Investigators who raided the gang’s labs discovered 30kgs of cocaine paste, 1kg of cocaine powder, 600kgs of pellets impregnated with cocaine, and 3,000 litres of chemical products used during the extraction process.

Puppies’ stomachs

In an extraordinary cruel case, a crooked Venezuelan vet last September pleaded guilty in a US court to turning young puppies into drug mules by sewing containers filled with liquid heroin inside their bodies for a Colombian trafficking gang. Andres Lopez Elorza confessed to stitching the drugs into the stomachs of young Labrador retrievers, which would then be flown from Colombia on commercial jets to New York City. Having made it through customs, the canines would be killed when the heroin was ripped from their bellies. Elorez was jailed in six years in February after admitting a single charge of conspiracy to import a controlled substance to the US.

Bounty on sniffer dog’s head

Demonstrating further disregard for the wellbeing of animals, members of a Colombian drugs cartel were last July said to have placed a bounty of up to $70,000 on the head of a sniffer dog who had helped the country’s customs officers find 10 tonnes of cocaine concealed in suitcases, boats and large shipments of fruit. The notorious Gulf Clan, which has developed a reputation for using extreme violence and intimation to protect its trafficking routes, was reported to have offered the money to anybody who killed German shepherd Sombra, after the dog played a pivotal role in the discovery of five tonnes of the group’s cocaine that was hidden in crates of bananas.

Aging and middle class drugs mules

Conscious of the fact customs officials are typically suspicious of a certain profile of passenger when it comes to screening for drug mule activity, South American cartels appear to have sought to recruit a new type of narcotics courier less likely to attract unwanted attention. Back in December of last year, law enforcement authorities in Portugal cautioned that trafficking networks were recruiting elderly cruise ship passengers to act as mules on liners travelling from South America and the Caribbean to Europe. Official sources issued the warning after British couple Roger and Susan Clarke, then aged 72 and 70 respectively, were allegedly caught with cocaine worth an estimated $2.5 million after returning to Europe from the Caribbean on a cruise boat. Earlier in 2018, a court in Australia jailed a Canadian woman for eight years after she admitted helping to smuggle cocaine estimated to be worth more than $21 million into the country in similar circumstances. Melina Roberge was arrested in August 2016 when Australian customs officers raided the luxury Sea Princess cruise liner while it was docked in Sydney Harbour having previously stopped off in South America.

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