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Why counterfeiters are still able to operate all but freely on the surface web

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counterfeiters are still able to operate all but freely on the surface web

New technology such as the dark web, virtual currencies and encrypted messaging apps have revolutionised the manner in which most forms of serious and organised crime are carried out. These days, illicit networks involved in activities such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, organised immigration crime, child sexual exploitation and the poaching of endangered wildlife will typically use digital tools to some degree during the course of their operations. In the majority of cases though, these networks are not so keen on using internet-related technology out in the open, preferring instead for obvious reasons to tap tools that keep their businesses hidden from the eyes of law enforcement agencies and members of the wider public.

Counterfeiters, on the other hand, have been able take full advantage of the growth of the surface web across the world, seemingly able to circumvent the woefully inadequate measures put in place to crack down on their illicit activities with ease. While it may be the case that some counterfeiters sell their bogus products through closed social media groups, the nature of their business and the lax controls put in place to prevent them from operating mean many have few qualms about trading in plain sight.

While it is of course quite right that illicit narcotics and the body parts of endangered species cannot be traded openly on the surface web, it has to be asked why the availability of counterfeit goods online remains so widespread, in spite of law enforcement agencies around the world and big technology firms repeatedly promising to take more serious action against the peddlers of fake products on the internet. Considering that the proceeds from the sale of counterfeit goods are routinely used to fund other forms of organised crime and terrorism, and that fake items pose a significant health and safety risk to the consumers who end up buying them, it is a wonder that this issue is not taken a lot more seriously than it is.

If anything, the problem appears to be getting worse, with a report published in March by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EU’s Intellectual Property Office revealing that pirated and counterfeit goods now account for 3.3% of all global trade. The study estimated that the worldwide value of counterfeit and pirated goods was $509 billion in 2016, the latest year for which data was available, which was up from $461 billion in 2013. The authors of the report noted that the increase had coincided with a time during which online trading platforms had made it much easier for the criminal networks that produce fake goods to sell to a growing global customer base.

Earlier this week, the US Better Business Bureau (BBB) published a new study in which it warned that America is facing a counterfeit epidemic, noting that one in four of the country’s online shoppers have bought a fake item online, losing on average $350 each. “Almost anything that can be shipped can be counterfeited and sold online, including everyday products such as printer ink, headphones, phone chargers, athletic shoes, cosmetics, and even car parts,” the BBB said in its report.

After explaining what consumers should do to avoid falling victim to online counterfeiters, the non-profit makes a number of recommendations, calling for credit card processors to deny merchant accounts to sellers of counterfeit goods, and suggesting a system that would allow victims to claim chargebacks from their card provider after buying a fake item. While the BBB also called for the further investigation of Chinese websites that sell fake goods, it fell short of demanding that ecommerce platforms such as Amazon and eBay that profit from third-party sellers offering bogus items face meaningful penalties for doing so.

Speaking with CBS News last month, Amazon’s Vice President of Consumer Trust and Partner Support Dharmesh Mehta told viewers that the online retail giant is making progress when it comes to reducing the number of counterfeit items available on the company’s website. He was speaking just weeks after US President Donald Trump demanded that ecommerce platforms do more to crack down on the sale of counterfeit products by third-party vendors. Mehta admitted that Amazon is a long way off eradicating fake items being offered by third parties, and he is not wrong. Perusing product categories that are commonly targeted by counterfeiters on Amazon, it does not take an expert in intellectual property to see that the site is flooded with fake items.

This will almost certainly remain the case while platforms on which third party sellers are allowed to trade face no real action for allowing counterfeits to be sold. Instead of equipping consumers with the knowledge they need to avoid falling victim to counterfeiters online, organisations such as the BBB could spend their time more wisely lobbying for meaningful punishments for legitimate ecommerce sites that facilitate and profit from the global trade in bogus goods.

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Opinion

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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Opinion

How organised criminal gangs smuggle drugs into jails across the globe

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sneaking drugs into jails

In many countries across the western world, drug use in prisons is spiralling out of control, with inmates serving time in various nations seemingly able to get hold of their illicit substance of choice almost as easily as they can on the outside. Despite there being no shortage of evidence to suggest the problem of drug abuse in prisons is getting worse rather than better, jail authorities appear to be as good as impotent when it comes to formulating strategies to effectively tackle the problem.

Last week, the San Francesco Chronicle reported that drug-related deaths had risen 113% in Californian jails over the past three years, despite the state investing millions in technology intended to prevent illicit substances being smuggled behind bars. In Australia over the weekend, a jail in Queensland was locked down after six inmates overdosed on an unnamed substance. Meanwhile, the UK government last week announced the formation of an anti-corruption unit intended to crackdown on crooked prison officers who help inmates sneak drugs into prisons.

While similar efforts have been launched elsewhere, they appear to have had little impact on the quantity of drugs prison dealers are able to get their hands on in many countries, oftentimes in jails that are supposed to be some of the most secure sites on the planet. A major reason for this is the amount of profit that can be made from selling illegal substances behind bars. In some cases, drugs can fetch many times their street value in prisons, prompting some involved in the trade to intentionally get themselves sent to jail so as they can sell to fellow inmates. As such, the organised crime gangs that typically control the trade are continually coming up with new ways to get their product into penal institutions, conscious of the fact that using visitors to sneak drugs to inmates has become increasingly risky and impractical.

Corrupt prison officers

Britain’s prison anti-corruption taskforce was launched after it was revealed that more than 2,500 jail officers had been disciplined over the course of the past five years, the majority of whom were punished for incidents involving drugs or sexual misconduct. Organised crime gangs in Britain routinely groom prison officers into smuggling drugs behind bars on their behalf, and have reportedly planted members of their organisations in the country’s prison service in order to coordinate smuggling attempts. At the beginning of May, Arutz Sheva reported that authorities in Israel had arrested two men on suspicion of attempting to bribe a prison guard to smuggle drugs into a detention centre. Gang members will often try to intimidate or bribe jail officers into carrying out their instructions, using either incriminating information they have acquired about them, or through threats to the guards’ family members.

Drones

Over recent years, drones have become an increasingly popular way of smuggling drugs into prison. Drug-laden unmanned aerial vehicles are typically either flown up to prisoners’ cell windows so as inmates can reach out and grab the contraband they are carrying, or are used to drop packages of illicit substances into prison exercise yards. It was last week reported that authorities in Ireland are considering using new technology to prevent drones from flying drugs into prisons following a number of attempts to smuggle contraband into jails using the devices. Despite this smuggling method becoming quite common the UK, the British government has so far stopped short of using the type of drone-blocking technology Irish lawmakers are considering, which has the capacity to detect drones within a 1,000-metre radius and disable them. As well as drones, some smuggling gangs have sought to use pigeons carrying tiny “backpacks” to sneak drugs into jails.

Through the mail system  

The negative effects of new psychoactive substances (NPS) have been felt nowhere quite as keenly as in prisons, where they offer inmates looking to escape the horrors of their incarceration near-total obliteration. As well as being cheap and easy to come by, synthetic cannabinoids such as Spice have proved relatively straightforward for criminals to sneak behind bars. While a number of illicit substances have been available in liquid form for many years, NPS that can be sprayed onto or soaked into items have been a significant boon for gangs looking to smuggle illegal drugs into jails. In December last year, Mother Jones reported that a prison in the US state of Pennsylvania had been forced to photocopy letters sent to inmates after some were found to have been soaked in liquid NPS. Once inside, these letters could be smoked by prisoners. In the UK, there have been numerous reports of drug-soaked books being sent to inmates, the pages of which can be sold for hundreds of pounds each.

New inmates

So high are the profits that can be made from smuggling drugs into prisons these days, criminals are now routinely committing offences with the intention of being sent to jail solely so as they can sneak contraband behind bars. In 2016, researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University revealed that prisoners had said they could make as much as £3,000 in four weeks by smuggling 28 grams of synthetic cannabinoids into UK jails. They said that at the time, a gram of Spice that cost £3 {$3.91) on the outside could sell for £100 behind bars. Many new convicts attempt to smuggle drugs into jails internally, either after having swallowed them, or by concealing them inside their rectums.

Throwing contraband over walls

Lobbing drugs and other contraband over prison walls to inmates on the other side is by no means a new way of smuggling illicit items into jails, but some criminals have sought to put their own spin on the method. Filling tennis balls with contraband before throwing them over jail walls has been well tried and tested over recent years, but British gangs have taken the idea one step further by sewing drugs and miniature mobile phones into the bodies of dead rats before chucking them into prison exercise yards. In March, Britain’s Ministry of Justice revealed that jail guards had discovered the disembowelled bodies of dead rats that had been filled with drugs while carrying out patrols around the perimeter fence at HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset. It was thought that members of an organised criminal network threw the dead rat bodies over the jail’s perimeter fence having arranged the smuggling attempt with an inmate.

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Opinion

Connected devices will remain vulnerable to hackers until the companies that make them are forced to provide minimum levels of security

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connected devices will remain vulnerable to hackers

Despite the fact that barely a week seems to pass these days without reports emerging of a newly-discovered Internet of Things (IoT)-related security vulnerability, governments and regulators across the globe have consistently failed to force companies that manufacture connected devices to make their products more resilient to cyber attacks. As a consequence, these firms are still able to bring products to market having paid scant regard as to how easily they might be hacked. And who can blame them?

If IoT device producers are not compelled by law to make sure their devices will not leave users vulnerable to being targeted by cyber criminals, it should come as no surprise when they fail to invest the significant amounts of money that would be required to make their products more secure. While this should seem quite obvious, lawmakers the world over have done little but dither when it comes to legislating over a threat that many analysts agree poses a significant danger to consumers. With some experts suggesting there could be as many as one trillion devices connected to the internet by 2025, the time has come to force connected device makers to get their house in order.

While some governments do pay lip service to the problem, few appear to have grasped the importance of moving quickly to ensure that the growing number of connected devices people are using are safe. In some cases, this is not just about protecting consumers’ personal information and their banking details. If hackers are able to gain access to connected cars or online medical devices, lives could be at risk. For their part, lawmakers in the US have this week been considering how to make the IoT more secure. Representatives from device makers told the Senate Commerce Committee Security Subcommittee that they should be permitted to continue with a system that allows them to work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on voluntary baseline security standards rather than face government legalisation that would compel them to make their devices safer for users. But as Democrats sitting on the committee pointed out, it is clear to see that this approach is failing to produce results anything like quickly enough.

In the UK, the British government has announced plans that could force companies that make IoT devices to place labels on their products that would tell consumers how secure they are. British lawmakers have also said they will consult on forcing connected device manufacturers to build a minimum level of security into their products. Back in February, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute attempted to establish a security baseline for IoT consumer products, which it said would provide a basis for future connected device certification programmes. The organisation laid out 13 recommendations that it said would make such products safer, but owing to the fact that these are not legally enforceable, they amount to little more than a template for best practice.

It is now passed the point where it had to be asked how difficult this can be. Lawmakers have been aware of the growing threat that insecure connected devices pose for the best part of half a decade, but have proved themselves to be wholly unwilling or unable to force companies that manufacture these products to make security a priority. Meanwhile, hackers continue to have a field day exploiting the millions of poorly-secured IoT products that are flooding into consumers’ possession. Last month, online security firm Palo Alto Networks revealed that a recently-discovered variant of the Mirai malware was attacking a wider range of IoT devices, allowing hackers to create a botnet that could be used to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Elsewhere in April, Security researcher Paul Marrapese said that hundreds of thousands of IoT devices including baby monitors and smart doorbells have serious vulnerabilities that allow hackers to hijack them and spy on their owners. Marrapese claimed affected products were using peer-to-peer (P2P) features that allow users to connect to their devices the moment they come online.

In many cases, he myriad IoT vulnerabilities that are currently being discovered with such alarming regularity would not occur in the first place if device makers had been forced to ensure their products were robust enough to withstand the unwanted attention of hackers. Unfortunately, as things stand at present, none of this is likely to change for the better any time soon. Until governments across the world are bold enough to accept that allowing technology firms to self-regulate when it comes to security simply does not work, the willingness of these companies to cut corners where their customers’ online safety is concerned will continue to be all that cyber criminals need to successfully exploit the exponential growth of the IoT.

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