Coronavirus: Good times for counterfeiters, bad for Yakuza
- June 9, 2020
- Posted by: Bishop Group
- Category: Blog
CORONAVIRUS stole into our vocabulary like a thief in the night, silently taking away normality in our working lives, our relationships and our pleasures. As an organism it has no intent, no reason and no goal. But it has opened doors for criminals and opportunists who, unchecked, will compound the damage it does.
In March the European police organisation Europol published a report titled “Pandemic Profiteering: How Criminals Exploit the COVID-19 Crisis.” In the foreword to the report, Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle wrote: “Organised crime groups are notoriously flexible and adaptable and their capacity to exploit this crisis means we need to be constantly vigilant and prepared.”
Between 3 and 10 March Europol launched Operation Pangea which involved 90 countries. In the course of the operation authorities seized 34,000 counterfeit surgical masks as well as €13 million worth of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals. French law enforcement authorities identified websites offering the sale of COVID-19 blood spot tests. The Fraud Investigation Unit of the Romanian Police seized 1,900 medical masks imported from Brazil that did not meet required standards.
The US has seen a dramatic increase in scams involving email addresses, phones and websites. In April the US Federal Trade Commission warned citizens not to respond to online communications claiming to provide information about cheques from the government.
Another victim of the crisis in America is the Freedom of Information Act. The laws at Federal, state and local levels are meant to give the press and public access to information held by government agencies, but many of them are delaying or ignoring requests. The US State Department, for example, told a BuzzFeed reporter that it was suspending FOIA compliance indefinitely.
As The New York Times wrote on 12 May: “Taxpayers have a right to know how and where their money is being spent in the efforts to buy ventilators, masks and other essential supplies—and whether agencies are being forthright about their efforts.” The editorial added: “Far too often officials have sought to alter or disregard FOIA laws to obscure government conduct or mismanagement.”
In the UK the justice system has had to adapt to the new environment in both the civil and criminal courts. The Lord Chief Justice has rejected the idea of juries deliberating over video links, but in a recent judgment Deputy High Court Judge Daniel Alexander stated that “the wheels of justice should keep turning at their pre-crisis rate.” Trial by jury was effectively suspended on 23 March in order to adhere to social distancing, creating a backlog of cases that may take years to clear. There is a provision in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow trials without juries, but it has never been brought into force.
Of course, amid all the coronavirus chaos you may wish to spare a thought for the difficulties being endured by the Yakuza, the Japanese organised crime groups whose drug dealing, prostitution, blackmail and protection rackets have not produced their usual level of income.
According to a Sky News interview with Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo-based journalist, young members of the Yakuza are having a hard time making the money demanded by their bosses. They have been selling masks at high prices to small retailers, but according to Adelstein “it hasn’t been very profitable for the gangs.” And while there isn’t a nationwide lockdown, not many people are visiting the brothels. Adelstein said that Yakuza’s elders are considering whether to suspend “dues” from young members.
However, all is not lost for the Japanese crime lords. According to another expert, Tomohiko Suzuki, “the price of marijuana and stimulants have risen to nearly double in some areas.”
The likelihood of higher costs was also cited for opiates such as cocaine in a recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Production in Afghanistan, which accounts for 82 per cent of the world’s illicit opiates, may be affected because of the reluctance of people to travel during the March to June harvest season. Even synthetic drug production has been hindered in Mexico with prices reportedly having doubled between January and March of this year.
But while fewer drugs and higher prices may lead to a reduction in drug trafficking, the report warns that organised crime groups in the Balkans are moving from the drug trade into counterfeit medicines and cybercrime.
The battle against the pandemic and the crime it produces will not be won at a single stroke, whether by the arrest of a drug lord or the production of a vaccine. In the words of Financial Times columnist John Paul Rathbone, both can at best become “latent but controlled.”