At my small college in rural New Hampshire, crime is virtually nonexistent. Keys are left in unlocked cars overnight. Valuable electronics can be found unsupervised in the college library for hours at a time. I can’t remember the last time I locked my off-campus apartment door. The closest thing to a crime spree we get is when inebriated students sometimes “borrow” bikes to get home on a cold night. Even then, they’re usually returned.
Of course, rural New Hampshire towns represent just a tiny corner of the world. Across the globe, new social habits sparked by lockdowns, distancing regulations and job losses are fueling wholesale changes to criminal activity.
Today’s Daily Dose exposes how the pandemic, rising temperatures and other surprising changes are impacting crime. Explore new solutions being unfurled in attempts to combat illicit evils and meet some of the world’s most notorious crooks.
Yes, the times and the crimes, they are a-changin’.
Liam Jamieson, OZY Reporter
(post-)pandemic criminal world
1. COVID Conning
The rushed distribution of pandemic financial relief presented a ripe opportunity to fraudsters in the U.S. and globally. In California, officials estimate that at least $11 billion has been stolen from the state’s COVID-19 relief program, but it could even be as high as $30 billion. The stolen money can be attributed to scammers like Southern California’s Nguyen Social Services, which for $700 would file false unemployment claims for people who otherwise were ineligible for COVID-related financial assistance. Meanwhile, officials in Nebraska have found that nearly 66% of the state’s unemployment money has been misspent on things like potentially fraudulent claims, payments to ineligible inmates and people receiving benefits from multiple programs. Nigerian small- and medium-sized enterprise owners, meanwhile, are being forced to return half of the money in their COVID relief payments, a possible manipulation by corrupt officials.
Border walls can’t stop them. With U.S. federal crackdowns on human and drug trafficking, experts fear that cartels might turn to hacking to diversify their portfolio, with some syndicates already getting their hands on sophisticated spyware via corrupt Mexican officials. Hackers in Brazil and Mexico are cooking up sophisticated local code to target banks, ATMs and smartphones in Latin America . . . and increasingly, even in the U.S.
Before the pandemic, Milan’s organized crime cartels, known as malavita, used to sell drugs in public spaces — parks, restaurants and nightclubs. Amid pandemic-induced restrictions on movement, dealers turned to WhatsApp and the dark web to communicate with buyers, and drugs were dealt more stealthily, both knowingly and unknowingly through food delivery workers. All the while, the malavita has also found itself playing a crucial role in the local economy, providing loans to small- and medium-sized businesses that have been struggling because of the pandemic.
4. Spiking Temps, Spiking Crime
Summertime is synonymous with good weather, vacations and . . . crime? While the heat may encourage some to relax with a cold drink, hot weather can make people grumpy, irritable and even violent. Studies show a correlation between temperature increases and violent crime. In Finland, for every degree increase in temperature, violent crime increases by 2%, and in South Africa, murders increase 1.5% per degree increase. Climate change is causing heat waves to increase in frequency and length, painting a foreboding future where upticks in violent crime could be the new normal.
5. Unruly Behavior
Unprecedented levels of passenger violence are causing some airlines to stop in-flight alcohol service. Fans are throwing popcorn at NBA players during games. Racist attacks from disgruntled soccer fans flooded social media after England’s Euro 2020 final loss to Italy earlier this month. As much of the world reopens and people start to reintegrate into society, rowdiness has plagued public spaces and social media. What gives? Has the world forgotten how to act? While it’s still too early to fully understand, some experts are attributing the behavior to pandemic-induced stress. “Now that the world is reopened, we may see less patience, more irritability, less stress tolerance because people have been trying to hold it together for so long,” Dr. Crystal Clark, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, tells CNN.
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They capture comical videos that go viral, but they also do so much more. Doorbell camera systems such as Ring and Wyze are home security features that, during the pandemic, have become more popular than ever. With less going out and more online shopping, the cameras keep a watchful eye over packages, which have faced greater rates of theft since the pandemic began. The doorbell devices can also ward off unwelcome visitors, with two-way audio, lights and sirens. Now as people start to venture outside their homes more often, the cameras can help keep an eye on property remotely via smartphone.
2. Home Office Cybersecurity?
For better or worse, working from home means your company’s IT department isn’t just around the corner. From hacked personal devices to ransomware and email phishing schemes, plus the fact that employees are less likely to report cybersecurity mistakes when working at home, IT experts fear that poor cybersecurity practices from at-home and hybrid workers will bring added challenges that will mandate a change in security operations. Using secure WiFi networks, strong passwords, multifactor authentication and VPNs, which hide your IP address and encrypt your internet activity and data, are all ways to practice better cybersecurity while working from the spare bedroom.
3. Delivery Dangers
Ordering in has never been so easy. It’s also been essential for many of us stuck indoors. To meet this demand, some who lost their jobs during the pandemic turned to Uber Eats and DoorDash to bring in cash. But the results have not been without danger. Cities like New York and Los Angeles saw a rise in bike thefts, robberies and assaults targeting delivery workers during the pandemic. But with few options to generate income, many delivery workers have had no choice but to accept the risks.
4. Domestic Violence
A pandemic within the pandemic, domestic violence spiked amid COVID too. With increased time spent at home, cut off from support systems on the outside, incidents of domestic violence increased by more than 8% in the U.S. following the enactment of stay-at-home orders. The U.N. has also recorded rising domestic abuse in other nations, with emergency calls rising by 25% in Argentina during lockdowns, and by more than 30% in Singapore and Cyprus. In some U.S. cities, those who report violence can face eviction from their landlords, and with increased unemployment in many countries, those who leave their abusers might also face homelessness. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which passed in March, has recognized the problem, allocating $450 million to domestic violence services. A promising start, but will it be enough?
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The U.S. Justice Department recorded a small victory when it recovered about half of the $4.4 million ransom that Colonial Pipeline, working with the FBI, paid to the hackers behind the ransomware attack in May. Operation Trojan Shield was a yearslong sting operation conducted by the FBI in collaboration with Australian police. It gave the two agencies access to millions of illicit messages from black-market cellphones with secret encrypted messaging apps, resulting in the arrests of more than 800 criminals in over a dozen countries. Successes such as these can be attributed to well-funded law enforcement agencies becoming more proficient in encryption and cryptocurrencies. But these are relatively minor wins in the war against fast-adapting cyberwarfare criminals. Despite the FBI’s recent success, most international law enforcement agencies lack the resources to carry out operations of a similar scope. Some experts warn that catching cyber crooks could push the hackers even further underground.
2. A Life-Saving Model
Once the country with the highest murder rate in the world, Honduras halved that number in just five years. Between 2012 and 2017, the homicide rate fell from 90 per 100,000 to 42.8 per 100,000. How did they do it? Under President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office in 2014, law enforcement went after powerful street gangs and cracked down on drug-trafficking organizations with assistance from the U.S. Authorities also enacted widespread reforms of the once-corrupt police and penitentiary systems. With Hernández still in power and these initiatives still in place, murder rates have continued to fall since 2017. Can other countries follow the same model to reduce violent crime?
Made in China, real or fake. From counterfeit beer and dangerous synthetic drugs to human trafficking, China is the global heartbeat of illicit international trade networks. In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched an anti-crime campaign called “Sweeping Black” in a bid to topple Chinese organized crime involving counterfeit goods and human trafficking. Though the campaign has shown promise, experts worry that the efforts may only have a temporary effect while shifting the illicit industries to other parts of the world.
As more studies emerge showing that locking up large numbers of offenders fails to reduce crime, criminal justice reform could become a key strategy. Amid COVID-19, steps have been taken in the right direction: Some cities have suspended prosecutions for nonviolent offenses such as selling or possessing drugs, bail charges have been eliminated for many and some states have dropped outstanding fines and fees. Reform advocates hope that since the pandemic has exposed these flaws, prison systems around the country will reform instead of reverting to their pre-pandemic practices.
new criminal notables
That’s his alias; his real name is Dairo Antonio Úsuga David. He’s a billion-dollar drug kingpin with a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S., but you wouldn’t think that at first sight, given that he travels around Colombia’s jungles by mule disguised as a regular farmer. A leader of Colombia’s Gulf Clan drug cartel, Otoniel and his private army of over 1,600 control the movement of virtually all cocaine that leaves Colombia’s northern border to the Caribbean and Central and North America. Otoniel is also involved in illegal gold mining, human trafficking, extortion and police assassinations. Though Colombian police just nabbed Otoniel’s sister with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Colombia’s most wanted man remains at large.
It’s hardly surprising that some of the world’s wealthiest people are involved in less-than-legal practices, but a country’s richest person also being a mafia kingpin? Meet Bulgaria’s Vasil Bozhkov. A cigar-loving entrepreneur nicknamed “The Skull,” Bozhkov is worth an estimated $600 million to $1.8 billion, having capitalized on Bulgaria’s transition out of communism in the early ’90s. So how did he go from businessman to organized crime king? Well, full details are not in the public domain, but a leaked 2005 cable by the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria revealed that Bozhkov’s illicit practices include “money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, extortion and racketeering.” He’s also thought to be involved in the archaeological black market. With Bulgaria ranked as the EU’s most corrupt country, no activity can really be ruled out.
Serving as the most powerful gang leader in one of the world’s most unstable democracies, Haiti’s Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier gains more power every day that the Haitian government remains in disarray. A former police officer, Cherizier is a suspect in the gang-related 2018 massacre of dozens of men, women and children in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of La Saline. But the gang lord is also a neighborhood hero, who during the pandemic united warring gangs into a revolutionary confederation called G9. Now he is inciting gangs to take to the streets in protest of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, further contributing to the risk that Haiti will plunge deeper into chaos.
4. The Jefwa Brothers
Kenya’s version of the Kray brothers, the duo of Samuel and Nicholas Jefwa have been on the run since 2015 after allegedly conspiring to smuggle and sell 420 pounds of rhino horns and 10 tons of ivory from East Africa to buyers in Southeast Asia and the U.S. They both earned a spot on Interpol’s list of most-wanted eco-criminals in the process. The brothers have also been linked to notorious West African Ivory Cartel boss Moazu Kromah. It’s unknown where the brothers are hiding, but as of 2017, they were believed to be somewhere in Sudan.