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Europol report paints picture of counterfeiting threat during Coronavirus pandemic

21 April 2020

FROM WEBSITES selling fake COVID-19 blood screening tests being taken down by EU Member States’ law enforcement authorities through to the seizure of sub-standard face masks originating from Brazil and the sale of chloroquine via instant messaging apps, the counterfeiters have been quick to cash in on the Coronavirus pandemic. The latest Europol report addresses this issue.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus has offered an opportunity for fast cash as criminals exploit shortages of genuine products and the anxieties of populations. The profits generated by these criminals during this time of crisis are likely very substantial, with the criminals themselves operating in complete disregard of the health and well-being of us all. 

In its latest report, Europol provides an up-to-date threat picture of the activities of counterfeiters during the COVID-19 crisis. All of the information contained within is based on contributions from EU Member States and Europol’s partner countries.

The organised crime groups involved in the production and distribution of counterfeit goods have once again proven highly adaptable in terms of shifting product focus, marketing and packaging to suit or otherwise shape current demand. However, the main countries of production have remained the same. This also applies for modus operandi, routes and the nationalities of the suspects involved.

An analysis of the operational data provided to Europol reveals that the companies targeting the EU for the distribution of counterfeit pharmaceutical products and equipment are registered to addresses both within the EU (Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, among others) and outside of the EU (China, India and the United States).

While some product offers for counterfeit goods related to the COVID-19 pandemic have appeared on The Dark Web, the product offerings available there remain limited compared to the surface web, which continues to host the primary distribution platforms for counterfeit goods.

Law enforcement monitoring

Some of the platforms used to advertise and sell these goods pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic and have been monitored by law enforcement authorities. In addition to these established platforms, a significant number of new websites have been established for the express purpose of profiteering from the pandemic. These websites sell fake COVID-19 home test kits and offer unconfirmed and often false advice on the treatment of the virus.

Some criminal groups may seize opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis to offer counterfeit or sub-standard food items more widely due to increased demand following on from the fear of perceived food shortages. Particular attention should be paid to developments and criminal innovation if a genuine vaccine for COVID-19 is developed as this will likely prompt a wave of offers for counterfeit vaccines.

Europol's executive director Catherine de Bolle explained: “Counterfeit goods sold during the Coronavirus crisis do not meet the required quality standards and pose a real threat to public health and safety. People who buy these fake products have a false sense of security, while they are in fact left unprotected against the virus. Therefore, we should not only go after the criminals behind these scams, but also, by way of prevention work, inform potential victims who are putting themselves and others at risk by using such fake goods.”

Europol is currently supporting several operations across the EU to combat the distribution of counterfeit and sub-standard goods during the COVID-19 pandemic. This involves the intensified monitoring of online platforms in order to possibly tackle online Coronavirus-related crimes. Co-operation with private industry stakeholders is also a crucial aspect in the work Europol is transacting in an attempt to counteract the threat in this area.