The U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA) has issued an alert to furloughed port and airport workers warning they may be vulnerable to organized crime groups (OCGs) seeking to exploit the COVID-19 crisis.
As global restrictions on the movement of people and goods are further relaxed, the alert warns that staff who have a detailed knowledge of controls and processes around the border could be targeted.
The warning has been issued to companies at the border, including port and airport operators, contractors, couriers and freight operators, as their furloughed staff return to work following the easing of COVID restrictions.
NCA Borders Threat Lead Beki Wright said: “Life has been difficult for everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic, including staff who work at the border, but organized criminals are alive to the opportunities this presents.
“The prospect of having your bills paid in exchange for disclosing knowledge about the U.K. border might seem appealing, but the people behind these offers are high-harm criminals responsible for drug smuggling, gun running, money laundering and people trafficking.
“Working with our partners at the Department for Transport and Border Force, we are determined to do all we can to combat corruption and dismantle the criminal networks responsible for it.”
In recent years NCA investigations and intelligence has identified examples of organized criminal networks targeting those working at ports and airports, parcel hubs and delivery centres. While the numbers are relatively low, the impact of such corrupt insiders can be extremely high.
The NCA’s 2021 National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised crime states that OCG efforts to establish new insider contacts are likely to increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Amber Alert issued by the agency warns that OCGs frequently offer financial support in return for knowledge and access to restricted areas. This can be used to help smuggle illicit commodities such as firearms and drugs, or the movement of vulnerable people and children through organized immigration crime.
OCGs may approach workers face-to-face or online, posing as recruiters or on some other legitimate pretext.
Beki Wright added: “We are aware that staff can be contacted via social media channels and would urge anyone who has been approached in this or any other way to contact us immediately. Your actions could help prevent serious criminality.
“If you are or have been approached or you have information please contact Crimestoppers anonymously, either online or by phone on 0800 555 111. If you have the means to report it through your employer or access to a whistle-blowing scheme, you can use that. Please do not turn a blind eye.”
In February 2020, Ben Whitby was stopped by police on his way home from Killingholme Docks where he worked as a tug operator. The glove box of his car was found to contain a package of cocaine with a street value of £150,000 and £3,000 in cash.
Whitby was also found to have an active Encro-device, a mobile telephone handset specifically and exclusively used to send and receive sophisticated encrypted communications – much favoured by serious and organized criminals prior to Operation VENETIC as a means of preventing law enforcement interception of messages.
A subsequent search of Whitby’s home discovered a further £20,000 in cash and a collection of high value watches, indicative of an income far beyond what his work at the port paid.
In June 2020, Whitby was sentenced to a total of six years and nine months imprisonment for possession of the cocaine and money laundering.
In April 2018 baggage handler Joysen Jhurry was among 11 defendants for their role in a plot to smuggle cannabis and cocaine into the U.K.
Jhurry was observed on CCTV moving suitcases that had arrived from Brazil onto the Domestic reclaim belt, where they would be collected by couriers.
A substantial quantity of Class A drugs was recovered and it transpired that over 100kg cocaine and 44kg cannabis had been imported into the U.K. using this method.
Jhurry was jailed for 16 years for his role.
In September 2019 a long-running and complex NCA investigation resulted in the conviction of Tilbury port worker, Michael Fowler, who was jailed for 14 years.
He was part of an OCG that moved “dirty” containers carrying drugs to areas of the port where they were more easily accessible, enabling the recovery of the drugs by outside gang members.