150 arrested and 26 million euros seized in a police operation on the Dark Web

Police forces from around the world have arrested 150 individuals involved in the sale of illicit goods on the Dark Web as part of a coordinated international operation involving nine countries.

This operation led to the seizure of over €26.7 million (US$31 million) in cash and virtual currencies, together with 234 kg of drugs and 45 firearms. The drugs confiscated include 152 kg of amphetamines, 27 kg of opioids and over 25,000 pills of Ecstasy.

This operation, christened Dark HuntTOR, was planned with a series of separate but complementary actions in Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, with coordination efforts led by Europol and Eurojust.

The Dark HuntTOR operation arose from the closing down at the beginning of the year of DarkMarket, the world’s largest illegal market on the Dark Web.  At the time the German authorities arrested the suspected operator of this market and gained control of its criminal infrastructure, which provided police investigators from around the world with a large amount of evidence. Since then Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) has been gathering information to identify key targets.

As a result, 150 vendors and purchasers who had taken part in tens of thousands of sales of illicit goods were arrested all over Europe and the United States. Some of these suspects were considered by Europol as major targets.

The arrests concerned took place in the United States (65), Germany (47), the United Kingdom (24), Italy (4), the Netherlands (4), France (3), Switzerland (2) and Bulgaria (1).  Various investigations are still under way to identify more persons behind the hidden accounts of the Dark Web.

Within the scope of this operation, the Italian authorities also closed down the markets of the Dark Web markets DeepSea and Berlusconi, which together featured over 100,000 advertisements for illegal products. Four directors were arrested and cryptocurrencies worth €3.6 million were confiscated.

Europol’s EC3 agency facilitated the exchange of information within the framework of the Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce (J-CAT) based at Europol’s central headquarters in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Europol’s Assistant Executive Director of Operations, Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, affirmed that the aim of operations such as Dark HuntTOR is to warn the criminals who operate on the Dark Web that the international police community has the means and the global networks to unmask them and to hold them to account for their illegal activities, even in this part of the Web.

Buying on the Dark Web involves various risks:

• Purchasers may find themselves with more than they had bargained for. Opioids containing fentanyl, for example, have provoked a wave of fatal overdoses. Nor is there any guarantee that purchasers will actually receive the products or services they have bought, since there are tricksters operating on every digital street-corner.

• Purchasing arrangements may be exposed to a malware attacks prepared to cause ravages in purchasers’ databases.

• There is a real risk of prosecution. Using the Dark Web for illegal activities is a criminal offence and can lead to prison sentences in various countries.

Are you thinking of buying illegal products anonymously on the Dark Web?

Think twice. The Dark Web is no longer as dark as some criminal would like it to be. Police forces have got used to working in this field and have access to a wide range of different techniques to identify the purchasers and vendors of illegal goods.


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Hundreds of offences detected in a global operation against marine pollution

In March, 300 law enforcement agencies from 67 countries joined forces against marine pollution during the third global 30 Days at Sea operation. Europol and Frontex coordinated the European leg of the operation as part of the EMPACT action plan on environmental crime, while INTERPOL coordinated the global activities.

The actions led to the identification of numerous crimes ranging from illegal discharge to waste trafficking and the investigation of thousands of suspects worldwide.

Frontline action followed five months of intelligence collection and analysis, enabling participating countries to identify hotspots and targets.

The simultaneous actions led to:

• 34,000 inspections at sea and inland waterways, coastal areas and ports.

1,600 marine pollution offences detected in total.

• 500 illegal acts of pollution committed at sea, including oil discharges, illegal shipbreaking and sulphur emissions from vessels.

• 1,000 pollution offences in coastal areas and rivers, including illegal discharges of contaminants.

• 130 cases of waste trafficking.

By using INTERPOL’s wide range of databases and analytical capabilities, countries were able to connect pollution crime with other serious crimes such as fraud, corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, piracy, and illegal fishing.

With many enforcement resources being reassigned to tackle the pandemic, criminals have been quick to exploit growing vulnerabilities in different crime areas, including environmental crime. Inspections uncovered typical forms of marine pollution crime, from vessel discharges to waste trafficking by sea, but also criminal trends that have been growing amid the pandemic. These trends included COVID-19 disposable items such as masks and gloves, with 13 cases involving medical waste opened as a result of the operation.

A major criminal network trafficking plastic waste between Europe and Asia was exposed, triggering cooperation between authorities from both regions. So far, 22 suspects have been arrested and thousands of tonnes of waste have been prevented from being illegally shipped to Asia. It is highly likely that the waste would have likely been dumped there, contaminating soils and generating considerable marine litter.

Several countries from Europe, Asia and Africa reported illegal shipments of contaminated or mixed metal waste falsely declared as metal scraps. In one case, the Italian Coast Guard seized and prevented 11,000 tonnes of metal scraps mixed with plastic, rubber, mineral oil and other contaminants from being transported to Turkey. Namibia, the Philippines and Croatia also reported cases of illegal waste shipments from Europe.


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Ecuador: New clashes leave more than a hundred dead in a Guayaquil prison

At least 116 are dead and 80 injured – all of them locked-up – in a prison in Guayaquil as a result of clashes between rival gangs in what would be the third riot of 2021 in this penitentiary. On all three occasions, there has been disputes between criminal gangs with the aim of taking control of a prison pavilion.

The first riot took place in February and ended with 79 fatalities. In July, the second riot ended with 22 deaths. This third has had the worst consequences.

The No. 1 Detention Center in Guayaquil, Ecuador, was the scene of clashes in which grenades and all kinds of weapons were used. Authorities declared a state of emergency throughout the entire prison system.

Authorities also reactivated security protocols in all prisons in the country in the face of the possibility of new riots spreading through the system. Once the prison returned to a sense of normalcy, officers found corpses with bullet wounds, others mutilated or beheaded, and severed limbs with signs of grenade explosions in the prison pavilions.

Hundreds of relatives of the inmates approached the prison due to lack of official information.

Prisoner advocacy organizations such as Human Rights Watch called on the Ecuadorian government to investigate and identify those responsible for the violence in the prisons.

They also point to the overcrowding of inmates in prison as a key factor in explaining these levels of violence. They argue that all prisons in Ecuador are far above their capacity and do not allow for life in decent conditions.

Other prisoner rights organizations, such as the Alliance Against Prisons, believe that such serious events do not happen without a long history behind them, in which the state itself has a high degree of participation and responsibility.

However, they add that there is a high level of corruption among prison officials and call for serious questioning regarding the origin of the weapons used in these bloody events.


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Murders in the United States increased by 30% in 2020

In 2020, the United States experienced its biggest one-year increase in homicides since national records started in 1960, according to data collected by the FBI in its annual crime report.

The most significant previous annual change was the 12.7% increase in 1968. The national rate (homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) remains at around a third below the rate seen in the early 1990s.

According to FBI data, 21,500 people were killed last year (still well below the records set in the particularly violent era of the early 1990s), nearly 5,000 more than in 2019.

We may never fully know the reasons behind the increase, but analysts have pointed to several factors that may be contributing, including various pandemic-related stresses, the growing mistrust between police and the public as a result of the assassination of George Floyd, the number of police choosing to retire in response to the criticisms, and the increase in the number of firearms being carried on the street.

About 77% of reported homicides in 2020 were committed with a firearm, the highest share ever recorded, 10% up from 67% a decade ago.

The change in the murder rate was a national phenomenon, not a regional one. Homicides increased by more than 35% in cities with a population of more than 250,000. They also increased by more than 40% in cities with between 100,000 and 250,000 and roughly 25% in those with less than 25,000.

Even with the spike in homicides and the approximately 5% rise in violent crime, the new data shows that, overall, major crime fell by between 4 and 5% in 2020.

While murders may have a higher social cost, they constitute a small percentage of what the FBI classifies as major crimes. The overall fall in crime was undoubtedly related to the pandemic. Theft accounted for seven out of ten property crimes, and it’s difficult to shoplift when stores are closed. But the downward trend in overall crime started long before the pandemic: in 2020, the overall crime rate fell for the 18th consecutive year.

The employment of police officers has also been a determining factor. A survey of 200 police departments found significant increases in the number of officers retiring between April 2020 and April 2021.

The larger law enforcement agencies were substantially more likely to report a drop in officers than the smaller ones. Newark and New York City reported some of the biggest percentage decreases, with New York losing more than 2,500 officers from 2019 to 2020.

The crime figures from the country’s largest cities suggest that homicides have continued to increase in 2021, compared to 2020, although at a slower rate. So far, the figures from 87 cities with publicly available data show a 9.9% increase in homicides compared to the figures for this time last year.

Some cities like Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas are experiencing sharp rises compared to last year. Other big cities such as Chicago and New York are seeing similar numbers after significant increases in 2020. And some places, like Saint Louis (which had the highest homicide rate in the nation in 2020), have recorded significantly lower figures.


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Stability in the figures for violent hate crimes in the United States

The rate of violent hate crimes in the United States in 2019 (1.0 hate crimes for every 1,000 persons aged over 12) was not significantly different from that of 2005 (with 0.8 crimes per 1,000 persons), as is shown in the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on data reported by the victims US National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). During the fifteen-year period from 2005 to 2019, the rate of victims of violent hate crimes fluctuated between 0.6 and 1.1 for every 1,000 persons.

On average, the residents of the United States experienced approximately 246,900 victimizations of hate crimes per year during the 2005-2019 period referred to above. The number of hate crimes varied between 173,600 and 305,390 during this period. Yet the proportion of total victimizations for violent hate crimes did not vary significantly between 2005 and 2019.

In general, victimizations of hate crimes represented 1.6% of all non-fatal victimizations in 2019, compared with 0.9% in 2005. The victims indicated that nearly two thirds (62%) of hate crimes during this period were simple aggressions.

During the five-year period studied, it is estimated that 59% of the victimizations of violent hate crimes reported by the victims were motivated by bias against their race, ethnic group or national origin. This was the most frequently reported motivation for a violent hate crime. In almost a quarter of the victimization cases for this type of crime, the victims believed they had been targeted due to bias against their gender (24%), against persons or groups they were associated with (23%) or against their sexual orientation (20%).  Likewise, it was considered that approximately 1 in every 10 victimizations in cases of violent hate crime were motivated by bias against the victim’s disability (11%) or religion (9%).

Between 2010 and 2019, the number of hate crimes registered by the forces of order increased by 10% (from 6,628 to 7,314 incidents), according to the FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Program (HCSP). By comparison, the total volume of crimes registered by the security forces (including hate incidents and fires) decreased by 22% during the same ten-year period.

The figures registered by the forces of order and those reported by the victims differ because the NCVS and HCSP data were collected using different methods, and the victims often did not report incidents to the police. The HSCP and NCVS figures are the main sources of annual information about hate crimes in the United States, and use the definition established by the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990.

As was the case for the motivation of hate crimes reported to the NCVS, the majority (approximately 54%) of the hate crimes registered by the forces of order between 2010 and 2019 represented bias against race, ethnic group or cultural origin. 49% of these incidents were motivated by bias against blacks or Afro-Americans.  During this same period of time, the forces of order registered increases in the number of victims of hate crimes against blacks or Afro-Americans (from 2,201 to 2,391 victims), Asians (from 136 to 215) and Arabs (from 48 to 126).


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“No More Ransom” stops criminals receiving 1 billion euros

To date, the website No More Ransom providing ransomware decryption has helped over 6 million victims to recover their files, and has kept nearly 1 billion euros out of the hands of cybercriminals, as it has announced in a recent press release.

Launched five years ago, No More Ransom is supported by cooperation between the European Cybercrime Centre and various cybersecurity companies such as Kaspersky, McAfee, Barracuda and AWS. Its aim is to prevent victims from paying money that will then help to create even more ransomware attacks, according to Europol.

No More Ransom lists decryption programs so that victims of ransomware don’t have to pay to recover their data, thus preventing the hackers from receiving the money. For this reason they insist that ransom amounts must not be paid since, in any case, there is no guarantee that victims will be given the decryption key they need.

The group directs victims to their Crypto Sheriff tool. There the victims can introduce the URL (Internet address) of Bitcoin given by the hackers so that the ransom can be paid. The tool searches in the No More Ransom database, where the offers listed have grown from the four initial descriptors from 2016 to the present list of 121 tools proposed for decrypting some 152 families of ransomware. According to the group, the service is free and is available in 37 languages.

If there is no decryption tool available for a specific ransomware virus, users are advised to continue to check the list, since No More Ransom regularly adds new descriptors.

Keeping regular security copies continues to be the best way to protect your data from a ransomware attack, according to Europol. The agency also advises users to pay attention to the links on which they click and to update their security software.

Victims are, in fact, increasingly reluctant to pay the ransom demands. A survey by Threatpost in June found that 80% of those surveyed who had been the subject of ransomware attacks had refused to pay for a descriptor that could very well never materialise.

No More Ransom provides a reply to the increasing number of cybercrime companies, which seem to inject large sums of money into the ransomware ecosystem. During the first half of 2020, such attacks represented 41% of all cybercrime demands, according to a report made in June by Cyber Claims Insurance.

In addition to financing a criminal company, the payment of ransomware to companies sanctioned by the federal government could bring a company to the notice of the US Treasury, which added various ransomware groups to its sanction list in October 2020.


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Europol: new assessment of the terrorist threat from jihadist organisations

Europol has published the third edition of its Annual Report on the most prominent online jihadist propaganda in 2020.

Focusing on Islamic State and Al-Qaida, together with their various branches, the report traces the continuing development of these groups and how they have reacted to changing situations and attempted to overcome difficulties.

Prepared by the European Union Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) run by the European Counter-Terrorism Centre, this assessment of the threats is based on primary sources, including the publications, videos and recorded statements of the groups concerned, gathered by the EU IRU during the course of 2020.

The Report shows that 2020 was a critical period in the evolution of Islamic State and Al-Qaida. Both jihadist terrorist groups suffered major setbacks and were forced to adapt to fast-changing realities in order to survive and to continue to appear relevant. The risk that online jihadist propaganda may lead to continuous violence is still very high, given that both groups’ propaganda continues to call for attacks by isolated individuals who have no physical connection with either of the two groups. Among the main conclusions are the following:

Islamic State (IS)

• Under new leadership, IS is involved in increasing insurgency activity in its traditional strongholds and continues to exert global influence.

• One year after IS’s military defeat, the group’s media production capacities remain limited, due to its loss of infrastructure and personnel. As a result, IS official propaganda remained diminished in 2020.

• Today the group is focused on attempting resurgence in Iraq and expanding its international presence so as to encourage even more its global network of affiliates.

Al-Qaida (AQ)

• During the course of 2020, AQ underwent a series of major setbacks and lost some of its most prominent leaders.

• AQ continues to take advantage of current events to put forward its ideological tenets, which are presented as being “less extreme” than those of IS.

• Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) wishes to show that it is still capable of setting up external operations, even if events seem to suggest a reduction of its capacity in the field.

European Union Internet Referral Unit

Interpol’s EU IRU detects and investigates malicious content on the Internet and on the social networks. EU IRU’s work not only produces strategic information about jihadist terrorism, but also provides evidence to be used in criminal investigations.

This Unit is made up of a team of over forty specialists with a wide variety of skills and expertise, ranging from experts in terrorism inspired by religious motivations, to developers of information and communication technology and police officers specialising in counter-terrorism.


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An investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office is thought to have confirmed that the Government of El Salvador is negotiating with the Maras criminal gangs

According to a report by the El Salvador newspaper El Faro, the Public Prosecutor, Raúl Melara, organised a team to investigate the relationship between various officials of the present and previous governments involved in discussions with the Maras. The scores of pieces of evidence that have been brought together during the investigation (including recordings, photographs and witness statements) will not now come to light due to the dismissal of Prosecutor Melara and his team.

The current dramatic fall in the number of violent murders experienced in El Salvador is said to be due to a secret pact between the Government of Nayib Bukele and the three gangs that control the country: the Mara Salvatrucha, the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios and the Barrio 18 Sureños. The evidence that points to contacts between the country’s President and the leaders of the Maras essentially consists of the improvements in living conditions in the country’s prisons and the benefits granted to the numerous gang members who have never been arrested.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office had nicknamed the case “The Cathedral”. It confiscated numerous official documents from different prison administrations and searched various prisons and the central offices of the country’s Directorate-General for Prisons (DGCP), through which it learned that the Maras imprisoned in maximum-security centres had received clandestine visits from Government officials.

During these visits by public officials, the Director of Prisons, Osiris Luna, authorised hooded individuals to enter the prisons to meet leaders of the three Maras gangs, ignoring all legal admission regulations, including the need to register their presence, and even allowing them in without needing to identify themselves at all. 

The officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office concluded that these mysterious hooded individuals were usually officials of the current Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, together with leaders of the Maras still at liberty who came to receive instructions from, and transmit information to, the imprisoned gang leaders.

These investigations had revealed the list of demands the gangs had made to the Government in order to maintain their agreement in place. These take the form of a list of 20 points, including the bringing to an end of the large-scale operations of the Army and the Police against the gangs and also to the indiscriminate persecution of the members of the Maras solely because they are tattooed. They also demanded financing for small businesses and employment for their members, family visits to prisoners and changes to the maximum security regime, amongst others.

Since he came to power, President Nayib Bukele has achieved a reduction of violence to levels never previously seen in recent years. The public authorities announced on 8 August, for instance, that zero murders had been committed in the country, and attributed this success to their plan to ensure full control of the national territory. As recently as six years ago, this small Central American country registered 147 murders in the first five days of August, with five policemen among the victims. During the same period this year there have been just five murders.

The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, with its two factions Los Sureños and Los Revolucionarios, are the major criminal groups existing in El Salvador. The authorities estimate that there are 60,000 active members of the Maras operating in 94% of the municipalities in the country, of which 18,000 are currently in prison.


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Europol: 23 suspects arrested for commercial fraud by email involving COVID-19 equipment

The public authorities of Romania, the Netherlands and Ireland have discovered a sophisticated fraud scheme involving emails and fraudulent advance payment transactions, in an operation coordinated by Europol.

On 10 August, 23 suspects were arrested in a series of operations carried out simultaneously in the Netherlands, in Romania and in Ireland. Raids were carried out at a total of 34 different addresses. It is believed that the alleged criminals concerned have defrauded companies in at least 20 countries for a sum of approximately one million euros.

The fraud was directed by an organised crime group which before the COVID-19 pandemic was already offering other fictional products, such as wooden pallets, for sale online.  Last year the criminals changed their modus operandi and started to offer protective equipment after the pandemic had broken out.

This criminal group, trained by nationals of various African countries living in Europe, created false email addresses and websites similar to those of legitimate companies operating in the wholesale trade. Passing themselves off as the companies concerned, the criminals are thought to have persuaded the victims, mainly European and Asiatic companies, to issue orders and to have requested advance payments so that the goods could be sent to them.

However the goods requested were never delivered, and the funds collected were siphoned off via money-laundering operations into Romanian bank accounts controlled by the criminals, before being withdrawn from automatic cash dispensers.

Since the operations began in 2017, Europol has provided support for this case through the following actions:

• Bringing together investigators from all the national police forces that have collaborated closely with Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) to prepare for the day of the operation.

• Providing continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators.

• Deploying two of its experts in cybercrime in the operations in the Netherlands to provide support to the Dutch authorities for the real-time cross-checking of information and search for the corresponding evidence during the course of the operation. 

Eurojust coordinated judicial cooperation in relation to the investigations and provided support by implementing various instruments of judicial cooperation.

This action was carried out within the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT).

The following police authorities participated in the action:

• Romania: National Police (Poliția Română)

• The Netherlands: National Police (Politie)

• Ireland: National Police (An Garda Síochána)

• Europol: European Cybercrime Centre (EC3)


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Operation Pandora: over 56,400 cultural items confiscated and 67 arrests

Despite the restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Operation Pandora, which combats the illegal trafficking of cultural items, enjoyed its most successful year to date in 2020, with over 56,400 cultural items confiscated. These objects included archaeological remains, furniture, coins, paintings, musical instruments and sculptures.

Pandora V took place between 1 June and 31 October 2020, with the participation of the Customs and police authorities of 31 different countries.

During the operational phase the authorities conducted tens of thousands of checks not only at various airports, ports and border crossings, but also in auction houses, museums and private houses. As a result, over 300 investigations were opened and 67 individuals were arrested.

Given the global nature of these crimes, operational coordination units working on a 24/7 basis were created by Europol, on the one hand, and by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and INTERPOL, on the other, so as to promote the exchanging of information and to transmit alerts and warnings and carry out investigations in various national and international databases.

This operation was directed by the Spanish Civil Guard with internationally coordinated support from Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO. Pandora V was carried out within the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT).

Noteworthy operational data relating to the Pandora V operation

• A total of 27,300 archaeological remains were seized as a result of a single operation undertaken by the French Customs authorities. The suspect arrested now faces a prison sentence and a fine of several hundred thousand euros.

• During investigations on the Internet, Swedish police identified a popular work of art stolen in Sweden in 2019. During the same online auction, the police discovered a pair of 18th-century candelabra stolen from a Swedish church 8 years ago.

• The Italian Carabinieri reported over 2,700 cultural items confiscated, including ceramics, archaeological items, works of art and books for a value of 1,115,000 euros.

• The Greek police carried out 34 arrests and recovered a total of 6,757 antiques, including ceramic and marble artefacts, together with 6,452 coins, of which 5,333 were recovered in one single investigation. In one case, two Greek citizens were arrested for trying to sell 6 antiques made of marble and earthenware for 150,000 euros.

A total of 50 metal detectors were seized, of which 6 were seized directly from archaeological sites.

Europol, as the joint coordinator of this investigation, played a key role in carrying out the entire operation, facilitating the exchange of information and providing analytical and operational support. The WCO also assisted in the exchanging of intelligence between different agencies through a special user group created on its CENComm communications platform.

INTERPOL provided the connection between the participating countries in Western Europe and the Balkans, facilitating the exchanging of information through its system of secure communications.  An expert analyst provided support for the entire operation by checking the searches on the INTERPOL database of stolen works of art in order to locate and identify the stolen articles.


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