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EUs fraud busters struggle with pandemic overload

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The coronavirus pandemic has the EUs anti-fraud investigators working overtime.

The blocs anti-fraud agency is grappling with new challenges as counterfeiters work to flood the bloc with fake goods such as masks. At the same time, fraudsters have their eyes on the EUs €1.82 billion recovery package which was agreed by leaders in July but is yet to be finalized.

OLAF, the agency charged with investigating fraud and corruption related to EU expenditures and customs, has already opened more cases so far this year than the same time last year, according to Ville Itälä, its director general.

At the beginning of Europes coronavirus lockdowns “there was a huge amount of counterfeit masks, and thats what were working on now,” the anti-fraud chief told POLITICO. The fake masks are “mainly smuggled” from outside the EU and the problem has impacted “many, many member states,” he said.

“These false masks, they are expensive too — of course less expensive than the real ones, thats why people buy them — but its concerning your health, it can be a question of life and death, so its really serious,” Itälä, a former Finnish politician, said, while noting that other counterfeit medical equipment has been posing a challenge as well.

OLAF has been partnering with other organizations like Eurojust and Europol — as well as the EUs member states — to try to combat the fraudsters.

“Its so difficult to track because they use shell companies, and the chain is so long, its a huge work and very difficult,” Itälä said, pointing out that one red flag is when companies who have “never been in this field at all” become involved in medical supplies.

While noting that it has now become more difficult for fraudsters to market coronavirus-related products, Itälä warned the crisis will present new opportunities for counterfeiters.

“Lets see, in the future, when the vaccines will come, then we have to be careful,” he said.

Another challenge for OLAF is the blocs budget and recovery package, which is set to pump large sums to a wide variety of new projects, especially in priority areas like the green deal and digitalization.

“Over the past years, OLAF has investigated an increasing number of cases of fraud or other illegal activities with an environmental or sustainability element, underlining that, as sustainability has risen up the EU agenda, so it has sadly become a new avenue for fraudsters,” the anti-fraud agency wrote in its annual report, published Thursday. In one investigation concluded in 2019, OLAF found that a Belgian city (the reRead More – Source

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