Interpol chief: ‘Be vigilant, be sceptical, and protect your computers’

Jürgen Stock, Secretary General of Interpol, says that cybercrime is a major point of concern for law enforcement all around the world. [Interpol]

In an interview with EURACTIV’s media partner EFE, the head of Interpol, Jürgen Stock, has urged the world’s citizens to be vigilant and to protect themselves online, warning that cybercriminals are taking advantage of increased internet activity during national lockdowns and the current climate of fear resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

What new crimes have been recorded related to the coronavirus?

The global pandemic of COVID-19 of course is a very serious health issue but what we can see clearly is that there’s also a significant impact on crime in all countries concerned.

So, it’s mainly using the opportunities that the crisis is providing. Criminals are exploiting the fears and the worries of people. We see bottlenecks for instance in the supply of protective material.

What we mainly see are new forms of scams, for instance we see the classic form of telephone fraud being modified and changed. Criminals are pretending to be clinical or hospital officials and they are telling a story to people whose relatives have been falling ill, asking them for money for treatment or medication.

Are they groups that already existed or have new actors emerged?

We primarily see already existing organised crime groups who are quickly adapting to the new situation, quickly trying to exploit the new threat situation.

But we also see people who are jumping on the bus, so to say, and also trying to benefit from the situation.

Of course, there are fewer people on the street because of the confinement measures in most countries, which means fewer burglaries in homes, fewer street robberies.

On the other hand, you see criminals ringing at people’s doors trying to sell fake goods, they try to offer any kind of fake services to scam people. Simply to make money off of the fear of people.

Is electronic crime also a borderless pandemic or are some countries more affected than others?

Exactly, it depends a little bit on the technical developments in certain countries but actually no one is immune because all countries around the world more or less are connected to the internet.

For instance, Africa is very well equipped in the availability of mobile phones for banking business.

So this is clearly a global threat. This is borderless crime by nature. And we see clearly the trend now that criminals are moving from the physical environment into the digital world.

Cybercrime currently is a major point of concern for law enforcement all around the world as we see that criminals are profiting on a global level. International police cooperation needs to continue, it needs to be a priority.

What is the priority of these agencies in this crisis?

We (Interpol) are the platform that helps member countries in monitoring the global threat situation. We are assisting in specific international operations which are still going on. I think this is the good news for the public, that we are not stopping, of course.

And of course we are providing a lot of technical support to our member countries. We help in setting the right priorities, and tackling transnational crime definitely remains a key priority in all our 194 member countries.

Supply chains are under pressure in regards to all this medical equipment that is desperately needed all over the world. And also, police officers need protection in their daily business if they come into contact with the public.

There is a problem, there is a bottleneck, and Interpol clearly sees a trend that organised crime groups are trying to make money out of this situation now.

It’s transnational organised crime but it’s also people who are offering our citizens in the community fake goods, fake treatments, all kinds of fake sanitisers, masks, everything.

It’s so important that the people in our member countries know what the modi operandi, the schemes, look like so that they are to some extent protected.

It’s important to send a message to the public: be vigilant, be skeptical and be safe. And of course protect your computers at home, make sure in companies at home that your systems are updated.

Many of us are now spending more time at home doing teleworking, it’s a good opportunity to have a look whether your system at home or your system in your company, even hospitals that are attacked through ransomware attacks, are safe, using the new technologies, making sure you have backups.

Especially keep an eye on your kids, who are also spending more time in front of a computer. Make sure you know what they are doing, that they are protected.

We know that there are criminals trying to attack children – child sexual exploitation in this context is the key word, a very ruthless and horrific crime.

What has this crisis taught us about the fragility of our systems?

A huge portion of what we see now in terms of criminal activity is transnational activity, is organised crime operation not just across borders, they are operating across continents. Terrorists are still continuing their horrific activities.

It requires a global response. This is why Interpol has existed for almost 100 years – we are providing the platform to have relevant information, to share experiences, to share the crime trends that maybe today are starting in Asia but will arrive in Europe tomorrow.

Is there an estimated cost of the economic damage caused by these crimes?

The impact in terms of monetary damages is huge. In regards to organised crime, we are talking about multi-billion criminal industries that are operating across the globe.

There are huge opportunities for money laundering. Then again, we see more and more crime now as people are locked at home — for criminals it’s also dangerous to be out because there are lots of police on the street — so they are moving into the virtual environment.

We see cybercrime going up statistically and also the losses, the damages, are going up.

Countries like Spain, Italy or China are launching initiatives to track population movement to study how the virus spreads. Are you afraid that the need to contain COVID-19 could lead to authoritarian practices?

New technologies are not only providing opportunities for criminals, but law enforcement also has to use new technologies specifically international and transnational crime. The use of course is always an issue that needs to be decided based on national law.

Do you share the widespread idea that the world as we know it will never be the same?

I hope that this crisis is strengthening the multilateral part of cooperation, particularly in policing.

But again this is why Interpol has existed for almost 100 years because police officers always saw that no country could fight crime in isolation. We are working hard now to provide the right support to our member countries because again this multilateral platform to coordinate, to cooperate, to exchange information is more important than ever.

I think that the COVID-19 crisis is evidence that this kind of cooperation on a global scale is absolutely needed.

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