THE HAGUE, Netherlands – While the European Union's citizens are struggling to cope with the economic crisis, the continent's criminals are cashing in.
The EU's law enforcement agency Europol said Tuesday that some 3,600 organized crime gangs are exploiting the crisis and the increasingly interconnected world to "generate illicit profits at low risk" while also continuing to mine their more traditional illegal markets of drug smuggling and human trafficking.
The agency said in its annual Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment that criminals are broadening counterfeiting operations to include not just cheap knock-offs of high-end luxury items but also foods and medical products.
"Commodity counterfeiting, illicit trade in sub-standard goods and goods violating health and safety regulations are major emerging criminal markets in the EU," the report said. "Reduced consumer spending power has inspired counterfeiters to expand into new product lines."
Counterfeit products including foods, body care articles, medicines and toys are becoming more popular. In 2011, they accounted for 28.6 percent of seized counterfeit goods in Europe, up from just 14.5 percent a year earlier, Europol said.
Europol recently launched an investigation into the horse-meat scandal that engulfed Europe earlier this year, but the scandal in which horse meat turned up in meals supposedly made with beef was not directly mentioned in the report.
The assessment is used by the EU to help set its policing priorities in coming years. Europol is not a police force, but helps law enforcement bodies throughout the EU to coordinate work.
The organization warned that fraud, particularly online, is also a booming business for criminals.
"Although fraud is often perceived as a victimless crime, it causes significant harm to society and losses of billions of euros per year" across the EU, the assessment said.
The economic crisis could be fueling crimes in other ways beyond just creating a larger market for cheap goods.
The crisis "may also have resulted in increased susceptibility to corruption by individuals occupying key positions in the public sector, especially in countries where large salary cuts have taken place," the assessment said.
Economic hardship "may also make spurious investment opportunities more attractive" while government austerity measures can cut into crime-prevention budgets.
The report recommended police forces in the EU focus on crimes including illegal immigration, human trafficking, counterfeiting, cybercrime and money laundering, and highlighted illicit waste trafficking and energy fraud as emerging threats to be monitored closely.