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.
How the US opioid crisis could become a global phenomenon
For the best part of a decade, the world has looked on with horror as the US opioid crisis has spiralled out of control. Up until 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths had risen in America every year since 1999, driven in the most part by abuse of both prescription and illicit synthetic opioid-style drugs. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that drug overdoses were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of just over 72,280 people across America in 2017, which was up approximately 10% on the previous year.
The overwhelming majority of those deaths, nearly 49,000, were reported to have been linked to the use of opioids, highlighting the gravity of the threat these drugs pose to US public health. For its part, the Trump administration has sought to treat the problem as a law and order issue, and use it as a political weapon with which to target China, which is said to be a major supplier of illicit versions of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl sold on the streets of the US.
But while it is true that the opioid epidemic that has enveloped the US is a huge driver of crime across the country, and that many of the illegal drugs that have recently been fuelling the crisis originate from China, these are symptoms rather than causes of the problem. Many experts agree that the irresponsible over-prescribing of legitimate opioid medication, which peaked in the early part of this decade, is one pf the primary causes of the US opioid epidemic.
A propensity for US medics to hand out these types of drugs as though they were sweets resulted in many of their patients becoming addicted to the substances they were prescribed, a problem that was hugely exacerbated after the US government took steps in 2014 to crack down on the culture of over-prescribing, leaving those who had become hooked on legitimate medication with little alternative but to turn to illicit sources. Years later, major pharmaceutical firms including Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma are now facing huge negligence lawsuits relating to the manner in which the drugs they sold contributed to the problem.
Yet despite the well-publicised and very grave consequences of the over-prescribing of these types of drugs in the US, evidence suggests the same mistakes are being repeated in other countries. Public Health England (PHE) has published a report that revealed around a quarter of all adults in England are taking prescription medication that they might find difficult to quit, including opioids, benzodiazepines and antidepressants.
The report found that in March of last year, half of those receiving a prescription for these types of medicines had been doing so continuously for at least 12 months, while up to 32% had being taking them for at least the past three years. The PHE study also revealed that opioids were more likely to be prescribed to patients living in the most deprived parts of the country than the least deprived.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Australia could be on track to witness a larger spike in opioid-related overdose deaths than the US as companies look to foreign markets outside of America to sell this type of medication. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, opioid overdose deaths across the country rose from 439 in 2006 to 1,119 in 2016.
Outside of the UK, alarm bells are also ringing across the rest of Europe, with a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warning in June that 22% of addicts entering drug treatment programmes in EU member states for an opioid-related problems now cite a licit or illicit synthetic opioid as their main issue as opposed to heroin. The EMCDDA said this suggested that medicines containing opioids are becoming a growing problem for those seeking treatment for drug addiction in the 28-nation bloc.
While some doctors complain that they often have little alternative but to prescribe these types of drugs to patients, it seems astonishing that other wealthy western nations could be sleepwalking into the type of opioid crisis that has ravaged the US over the past 10 years. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that the availability and use of illicit synthetic opioids such as fentanyl is rising across Europe and Australia, meaning that if these countries’ governments leave it too late to take the necessary measures to tackle the over-prescribing of such medicines, an army of addicts will be left with a ready alternative once their legitimate supply had been reduced or completely cut off.
It is of course possible that the US opioid epidemic was caused by a set of problems that were unique to America, but the patterns being seen in other western nations are beginning to look depressingly familiar.
Online games and apps aimed specifically at children and young people remain fertile hunting ground for paedophiles and predators
Whether or not children spend too much time staring at smartphones, games console screens, laptops and tablets is one of biggest concerns modern parents face. Part and parcel of this for many is an almost constant worry about the type of material their children might access online. In an attempt to make sure their sons and daughters do not stumble across threats while using the internet, parents are now able to avail themselves of a number of tools that promise to reduce the chances of their children being exposed to online harms, including ISP content filters and tracking software that monitors which sites young people visit on their devices.
In many cases, these types of solutions can lull parents into a false sense of security, creating the illusion that children will be safe while online so long as they are unable to access websites that might carry questionable content. Sadly, predators and paedophiles who target children on the internet have been doing so using connected apps and games aimed exclusively at children and young people for years, many of which typically appear to be quite harmless to parents. Despite this, the tech industry appears to remain at best relaxed about the threat online child abusers pose to their younger users, seemingly content to be doing the bare minimum to address the issue.
Last week, UK child protection charity the NSPCC urged Facebook not to encrypt Messenger accounts belonging to children unless the company could prove that doing so would not expose young people to online predators. The charity argued that it seemed peculiar that the firm would choose to actively introduce new technology that would make it harder for its own staff members and law enforcement agencies to identify instances in which young people might be exposed to online grooming.
Facebook has faced criticism in the past for failing to provide access to messages sent by perpetrators of major terrorist attacks, and could in all likelihood press on with its plans to encrypt Messenger, even though doing so could potentially put children and young people at risk. If the company makes such a decision, it will provide further ammunition to those who argue that big technology firms care little for the fate of children and young people who are groomed on their platforms. It is an argument that is hard not to have some sympathy with, given the fact that these multi-billion-dollar companies appear to be making little progress in the fight against online child sexual exploitation. If anything, the problem appears to be worsening, with regular media reports suggesting that child abusers are able to take advantage of online tools, many of which are aimed exclusively at children, with near impunity.
Back in February, the US Federal Trade Commission slapped lip-sync video app TikTok with a $5.7 million fine after discovering that the company had illegally collected personal information from children, and had made children’s profiles public by default, resulting in some being contained by adults. This came after the Indian government in April ordered Apple and Google to remove the app, which is owned by Chinese technology giant ByteDance, from their app stores over fears it was being used to spread pornographic material. In the UK, an investigation conducted by Sun Online in February revealed that paedophiles were suing TikTok to send sexually explicit messages to children as young as eight. Just months later in May, the Sunday Times reported that police in Britain were investigating three cases of child exploitation a day linked to Snapchat, with investigators warning that paedophiles had been using the app to groom children into sending indecent images of themselves.
Elsewhere, police in both Canada and the UK last year cautioned that Epic Games’ wildly popular third-person multiplayer shooter Fortnite was being used by paedophiles and sextortion scammers to groom children into committing sex acts and sending explicit images of themselves via social media. Highlighting the manner in which predators are able to use these platforms to target victims, the BBC reported in July that a man from Wales had been jailed for 10 years after being convicted of using gaming accounts and nine Facebook profiles to groom boys as young as seven.
But despite the regularity with which these types of stories appear, little seems to change. The big tech firms, with their almost bottomless pockets, seem wholly unable to get to grips with the issue. In the majority of cases, they act only when forced to do so, investing in child protection initiatives solely when ordered to by governments, or when the issue poses a risk of damaging their bottom lines. To many, these companies’ failure to act is nothing short of a betrayal of the children and young people who are targeted by predators online. But while it is certainly the case that all technology firms could do more to address internet child abuse in all its forms, it is particularly egregious that businesses that own online apps and services aimed specifically at children and young people appear so indifferent to the wellbeing and safety of their users.
Counterfeit e-cigarette products could trigger an epidemic of deadly vaping-related lung conditions
While the jury is still out as to whether using electronic cigarettes is safe over the longer term, the vast majority of experts have until recently almost unanimously agreed that vaping is far less harmful than smoking traditional tobacco products. While this largely continues to be the case, a growing amount of anecdotal evidence suggests vaping might not be quite as innocuous as was once thought. Earlier this month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the first death linked to e-cigarette use had been recorded in America, and also said it was investigating nearly 200 cases of severe lung illness in patients who were users of vaping products.
This week, NBC reported that the number e-cigarette-related lung illness cases recorded across the US is nearer to 300, and revealed that health officials in Milwaukee had advised members of the public to stop using all vaping products immediately. None of the cases of vaping-related lung conditions recorded in the US have so far been linked to any one device or liquid product, but e-cigarette sceptics will likely not be surprised at the suggestion that inhaling what is essentially a cocktail of chemicals might be harmful to people’s health.
It remains to be seen as to whether or not vaping is in and of itself dangerous, and if so, how severe that danger might be, but the cases the CDC is now investigating have come to light at a time of increasing reports of counterfeit vaping products being sold in retail outlets and online. In many countries, the e-cigarette market is poorly regulated, raising concerns about untested products containing unknown ingredients being sold to unsuspecting members of the public. But even in countries where rules around selling vaping products are strict, a growing market for counterfeit and illegally produced e-cigarette products could pose a very serious and growing risk to public health. In the US, CNBC reported this week that mostly Chinese-made fake pods for Juul e-cigarette products are flooding America, prompting former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to speculate that bogus vaping products could be behind the recent surge in lung conditions related to e-cigarette use.
Like counterfeit cigarettes, which are typically more carcinogenic than the genuine product and often contain harmful ingredients such as rat position, arsenic and pesticides, fake vaping devices and liquids are produced in unregulated and potentially unhygienic environments. Not only does this mean it is almost impossible to know what ingredients are truly in counterfeit e-cigarette products, but also that all manner of bacteria could have contaminated them during the production process, or while they are in storage or being distributed.
According to a report from the Washington Post, authorities in the US are currently working under the assumption that the recent spate of vaping-related lung illnesses across the country were caused by “adulterants” in products that purportedly contained THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. Investigators are said to be focussing particularly on products that are manufactured illegally or are sold in states where marijuana is still outlawed. In a recent feature article, Rolling Stone outlined several cases in which young people had developed serious lung conditions having been regular users of these types of products. The magazine noted that a liquid one of these patients had been using contained not only THC, but also Vitamin E, which is known to cause lipoid pneumonitis if inhaled.
While some commentators have appealed for calm after reporting around the recent rise in e-cigarette-related lung illnesses, arguing that dissuading people from using vaping products could hinder efforts to reduce smoking rates, the problem looks likely only to worsen if it truly is linked to the sale of counterfeit devices and liquids. The global e-cigarette market was worth nearly $28 billion last year, and is expected to grow to $75 billion by 2023, according to Euromonitor, making what is already an attractive prospect for organised criminals almost irresistible.
Highlighting the difficulty e-cigarette users can have when it comes to knowing what is really in the liquids they use with their devices, health officials in the UK warned in July that at least nine young people had required hospital treatment after using purported THC vape liquid that in reality contained new psychoactive cannabinoid Spice. This came after the US FDA warned a Chinese e-cigarette manufacturer not to sell vaping juice laced with erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra and Cialis. As a growing number of people continue to inhale substances such as these, some of whose effects on the human respiratory system are unknown, and criminals who care little for public health increasingly look to target the hugely profitable vaping market, it looks likely that cases of e-cigarette-related lung illnesses will quickly become a problem with which medical professionals find themselves far too familiar.
- Police in Ohio arrest 104 people in major crackdown on sex trafficking
- Coalition of law enforcement agencies in the Philippines nab wildlife trader who evaded capture for years
- Farmer jailed for smuggling illicit garlic shipments into Australia
- LAX customs officers seize bogus NBA rings that would have been worth $560,000 if genuine
- California man jailed for soliciting murder of stepmother on dark web
9 February 2018
9 February 2018
8 February 2018
28 November 2017
28 November 2017
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