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European day on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse

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On the occasion of the European day on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (18 November), the Commission reaffirmed its determination to fight child sexual abuse with all the tools at its disposal. Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “Under the Security Union Strategy, we are working to protect all those living in Europe, both online and offline. Children are particularly vulnerable, especially as the coronavirus pandemic correlates with increased sharing of child sexual abuse images online, and we have an obligation to protect them.”

Home Affairs Commisioner Ylva Johansson said: “Imagine as a child victim knowing the worst moment in your life is still circulating on the internet. Even worse, imagine that an opportunity to be saved from ongoing abuse was missed because tools had become illegal. Companies need to be able to report so that police can stop images circulating and even save children.”

Over the last years, there has been a significant increase in child sexual abuse and exploitation cases and recently the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Europol found that as member states introduced lockdown and quarantine measures, the number of self-produced materials increased, while travel restrictions and other restrictive measures means that offenders  increasingly exchange  materials online.

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In July, the Commission adopted a comprehensive EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse. Under the Strategy, we proposed legislation to ensure that providers of online communications services can continue voluntary measures to detect child sexual abuse online. In addition, Europol provides support to operations such as the recent action targeting child trafficking. The agency also monitors criminal trends in the Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) and dedicated reports on the evolution of threats, including child sexual abuse, in the times of COVID-19.

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Europol

Network selling fake financial services online taken down

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Law enforcement and judicial authorities from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, the Netherlands and Ukraine, supported by Europol and Eurojust, teamed up against an organised crime group involved in binary fraud. The group was behind an online trading platform for financial services with binary options. Europol set up an Operational Task Force to support the cross-border investigation. 

The Action day on 6 October 2021 in Kiev, Limassol and Sofia led to:

  • Eight house searches (five in Bulgaria, one in Cyprus, two in Ukraine)
  • 17 individuals questioned in Bulgaria
  • One high value target arrested in Cyprus
    Seizures included phones, electronic equipment, bank accounts and data back-ups 

At least € 15 million lost on fake options

Operating between May 2019 and September 2021, the criminal network lured German investors into making transactions worth a total of at least € 15 million. The suspects advertised the financial services online and via social media, while using over 250 domain names. The criminal network connected to a company, based in Ukraine, set up a call centre in Bulgaria. The approximately 100 employees of the two call centres, located in Sofia, contacted “clients” and advertised pretend financial services in the field of binary options under the guise of financial advisers. To undertake the scam, the call centre employees had scripts containing predefined conversations and key messaging to convince clients to release more funds. However, a subsequent investigation suggests that most of the employees were not aware that the company they were working for was involved in a fraud scheme. Initial profits shown in the user interface encouraged the clients to invest large sums of money. However, clients did not receive payment of their winnings or credit balance once they requested it. The investigation has so far led to 246 criminal proceedings across 15 German federal states. 

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To support the investigation, Europol set up a dedicated Operational Task Force through which it facilitated the information exchange and provided analytical support. During the action days, Europol deployed six experts to Bulgaria, Cyprus and Ukraine to cross-check operational information in real-time against Europol’s databases so as to provide leads to investigators in the field. The experts also provided technical expertise to enable the extraction of information from mobile devices and IT infrastructure.

Eurojust hosted a coordination centre to facilitate the information exchange and support cooperation between involved authorities during the action day. 
 

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Labour in vineyards and farms checked across Europe

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Between 9 and 16 September 2021, Europol supported Europe-wide co-ordinated action days against human trafficking for labour exploitation in the agricultural sector. The operation, led by France, involved a wide range of law enforcement authorities including police, immigration and border guards, labour inspectorates and tax authorities from Bulgaria, Cyprus, Finland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands and Spain. The European Labour Authority also supported the action days. Almost 2 050 officers from national authorities took part in the operational activities on the ground.

The action week resulted in:

  • 12 arrests (eight in France and four in Spain)
  • 54 suspected traffickers identified (27 in France, 21 in Italy, two in Latvia, four in Spain)
  • 269 possible victims of exploitation identified, 81 of which of trafficking of human beings (17 in Cyprus, 91 in France, 134 in Italy, 24 in Spain and three in Latvia)
  • 704 locations (vineyards, farms and others) checked
  • 273 vehicles checked
  • 4,014 people checked
  • 126 new investigations initiated (14 in Finland, 93 in France, two in Italy, nine in Latvia, four in the Netherlands and four in Spain)

Focus on seasonal workers

Law enforcement authorities carried out inspections in working places identified as more vulnerable to exploitation, such as farms and vineyards. The checks focused on the working conditions of the employees. Non-EU nationals have been identified as most vulnerable to exploitation in seasonal employments, while EU nationals are reported to be exploited in the agricultural sector year-round. The action days targeted criminal networks and facilitators involved in the trafficking of human beings, specialised in ‘brokering’ employment on the illegal market. Labour exploitation is a very lucrative criminal activity, damaging the health and rights of the victims. A successful operation in France dismantled a criminal network, which has generated an estimated € 5 million in damages for victims and authorities. During the actions against this network, authorities searched 25 locations and arrested winegrowers, service providers and intermediaries.

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The fight against human trafficking for labour exploitation requires a consolidated, cross-border effort by different authorities. During this action week, the European Labour Authority organised the first joint inspection, which took place in France and involved officers from the Bulgarian General Labour Inspectorate. 

Europol coordinated the action days and facilitated the information exchange between the participating countries. Europol provided analytical and operational support 24/7 and facilitated the real-time exchange of communication between the participating authorities.
 

Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, Europol supports the 27 EU member states in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime, and other serious and organized crime forms. Europol also works with many non-EU partner states and international organizations. From its various threat assessments to its intelligence-gathering and operational activities, Europol has the tools and resources it needs to do its part in making Europe safer.

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Over 60 charged in crackdown on Balkan cartel behind cocaine pipeline to Europe

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An unprecedented international law enforcement operation involving 8 countries has resulted in criminal reports being filed against 61 suspects belonging to a Balkan drug cartel flooding Europe with cocaine. 

A number of actions have been carried out in the past year in the framework of an Operational Taskforce between Spain, Croatia, Serbia, Germany, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States and Colombia, with coordination efforts led by Europol’s European Serious Organised Crime Centre. 

This highly mobile criminal organisation had branches active in several European countries and was composed mainly of criminals from Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia.

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An Operational Taskforce was established by Europol in July 2020 to bring together all the involved countries to coordinate a joint strategy to bring down the whole network. Since then, Europol has been provided continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators. 

Results of the Operational Taskforce Balkan Cartel 

  • 61 members have been charged, out of which 23 have been arrested (13 in Spain and 10 in Slovenia)
  • Seizure of 2,6 tonnes of cocaine
  • Seizure of 324 kilos of marijuana
  • Seizure of €612 000 in cash
  • Seizure of 9 luxury vehicles and 5 motorbikes

A co-ordinated strike 

In the framework of intelligence activities carried out with their international counterparts, the Spanish investigators developed reliable intelligence that this cartel was preparing a major cocaine importation from South America into Europe in spring of this year. 

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Special surveillance measures were put in place as the criminals moved back and forth between Spain and South America to finalise the details of the cocaine importation, totalling over 1,25 tonnes. 

The investigation gathered pace in March of this year when the leaders of this cartel travelled to Spain to prepare for the arrival of the cocaine shipment. These two individuals – considered as High-Value Targets by Europol, had until then avoided attending meetings in person in order to evade law enforcement. 

This was too good of an opportunity for law enforcement to miss: in the early hours of 10 March 2021, officers from the Spanish National Police (Policia Nacional) carried out simultaneous raids in the cities of Tarragona, Barcelona, Gerona and Valencia, arresting thirteen individuals, including the two kingpins and a police officer who collaborated with the criminal organisation. 
The Spanish investigators also dismantled the cartel’s alternative revenue streams, such as the production and trafficking of marijuana and the sale of luxury vehicles. 
 
In a follow-up action in May 2021 some 48 other members of the organised criminal group were charged in Slovenia by the National Police (Policija) for their involvement in the distribution of the cocaine and marijuana throughout Europe. A total of 10 of these suspects are now under arrest.  

The following law enforcement authorities were involved in this crackdown: 

  • Spain: National Police (Policia Nacional)
  • Croatia:  National Police Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organised Crime (Policijski nacionalni ured za suzbijanje korupcije i organiziranog kriminaliteta - PNUSKOK) 
  • Serbia: Criminal Investigation Directorate of Serbia (Uprava kirminalisticke policije)
  • Germany: Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt),  Police Headquarters Frankfurt am Main (Polizeipräsidium Frankfurt am Main)
  • Slovenia: National Bureau of Investigation 
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: Federal Police Sarajevo
  • United States: United States Drugs Enforcement Administration 
  • Colombia: National Police (Policia Nacional)

This Operational Taskforce was part of Europol’s strategy in countering serious organised crime originating from the Western Balkans. 

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