AMSTERDAM - Europe's economic crisis has made underworld criminal gangs move into new kinds of illegal activities ranging from the counterfeiting of food and medicine to illicit waste trafficking and fraud in the energy markets, Europol said on Tuesday.
Economic crimes including fraud and corruption cost European governments, companies, and individuals billions of euros in lost taxes and revenues a year and hamper the region's economic recovery, the European crime-fighting agency said in a new report on serious and organised crime.
An estimated 3,600 organised crime groups are active in the European Union, it said, operating mainly in traditional areas such as international drug trafficking, cybercrime, human trafficking and money laundering.
"Many organised crime groups are flexible in their illicit business activities and capable of quickly identifying new opportunities that have arisen during the current economic crisis," Europol said.
"In response to reduced consumer spending power, counterfeiters have expanded their product ranges. In addition to the traditional counterfeit luxury products, organised crime groups now also counterfeit daily consumer goods such as detergents, food stuffs, cosmetic products and pharmaceuticals."
Europol said law enforcement sources and energy regulators in the European Union have warned of an emerging threat of fraud related to the electricity and gas markets.
Organised crime groups such as the mafia, or cosa nostra, are already involved in alternative energy, such as wind and solar, as well as waste management businesses as a way of laundering profits, Europol said.
"Businesses trading on energy exchanges and transmission system operators are noticing increasing interest from companies with little experience in these markets, but eager to enter them as wholesale traders," it said in the report.
"This mirrors developments observed during the emergence of ... frauds with carbon credits, in which fraudsters managed to defraud large amounts of VAT and to almost monopolise carbon trading with 90 percent of the trading in CO2 credits driven by fraud," it said without giving further details.