Murder-for-hire, money laundering, and more: How organised criminals work online

Murder-for-hire, money laundering, and more: How organised criminals work online

Europol has released an extensive report into serious and organized crime, including how these groups use the internet to aid in their criminal behaviour.

Europol is the European Union’s (EU) law enforcement agency and it assists the EU Member States in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism. We’ll often mention them when we tell you that cybercriminals have been arrested in international cooperation between law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and other US agencies.

The purpose of the report, besides informing the public, is to create a better understanding of international crimes. Understanding how criminals and criminal networks operate may help law enforcement to more effectively identify and disrupt criminal operations.

Of course, we’re interested from a cybercrime point of view. So let’s dig in.


Cybercrime in this report includes the creation and spread of malware, hacking to steal sensitive personal or industry data, denial of service attacks to cause financial and/or reputational damage, and other criminal activities.

The threat from cybercrime has been increasing over the last few years, not only in terms of the number of attacks reported but also the sophistication of attacks. Cybercrime causes significant financial loss to businesses, private citizens and the public sector each year through payments for ransomware, incident recovery costs, and costs for enhanced cybersecurity measures.

Cybercrime is attractive to criminals due to the potential profits, limited risk of detection and prosecution, which if successful often results in low sentences. Various types of criminals are involved in cybercrimes, ranging from structured criminal groups to lone offenders. At the entry-level, potential offenders without any specific expertise can carry out cyberattacks by relying on tools and services made available to them through crime-as-a-service.

Money makes the crimes go round

Money laundering is an essential component of the vast majority of criminal operations. Cryptocurrencies remain an important means of payment for criminal services and products. Their decentralization and semi-anonymity continue to make them attractive for criminal transactions. However they are not the main method of money laundering. A surprising 68% of crime groups use basic money laundering methods such as investing in property or high-value goods.

Brokers or intermediaries are crucial in connecting networks, individual criminals and groups. They enable and facilitate criminal business, linking producers with wholesale distributors, and distributors with transport providers. There is a parallel underground financial industry providing services to criminals and their networks completely detached from the oversight mechanisms governing the licit financial services industry. In many cases, service providers enable access to a parallel banking system which allows criminals to transfer money to associates across the world.


The current crisis situation due to the pandemic and the potential economic and social fallout threaten to create ideal conditions for the spread of organized crime in the EU. Criminals were quick to adapt illegal products, operational methods, and their narratives to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this way, they exploited the fear and anxieties of Europeans and profited from the scarcity of some vital goods during the pandemic.


While consolidated figures quantifying the number of violent incidents related to serious and organized crime are not available, the level of the use of violence associated with serious and organized criminality is perceived to have increased notably, both in terms of frequency and severity, over the last four years. 60 percent of the organized crime groups will use violence to any extent.

Much of the violence is arranged online, usually as a violence-for-hire service advertised on dark web platforms and encrypted communication apps.

The violent acts on offer range from threats, intimidation, vandalism and assaults, to kidnapping, torture, mutilation and murder. Violence is employed by criminal networks for a variety of reasons against external parties such as competitors as well as non-criminals (e.g. witnesses and their solicitors, law enforcement and court officers).

Key findings of the report

The full report goes into detail on many other forms of international crime, and we’ve only discussed a few sections that we thought would be of interest to our readers. Below we have listed the key findings of the report.

  • Serious and organized crime remains a key threat to the internal security of the EU.
  • The organized crime landscape is characterized by a networked environment where cooperation between criminals is fluid, systematic and driven by a profit-oriented focus. Several key actors cooperate in criminal networks with service providers and brokers in pivotal roles.
  • Similar to a business environment, the core of a criminal network is composed of managerial layers and field operators.
  • A key characteristic of criminal networks, as confirmed by the pandemic, is their agility in adapting to and capitalizing on changes in the environment in which they operate.
  • The use of violence by criminals involved in serious and organized crime in the EU appears to have been increasing in terms of the frequency of use and its severity.
  • Corruption is a feature of most, if not all, criminal activities in the EU. Corruption takes place at all levels of society and can range from petty bribery to complex multi-million-euro corruption schemes.
  • The scale and complexity of money laundering activities in the EU have previously been underestimated.
  • Legal business structures such as companies or other entities are used to facilitate virtually all types of criminal activity with an impact on the EU. Criminals directly control or infiltrate legal business structures in order to facilitate their criminal activities.
  • The use of technology is a key feature of serious and organized crime in 2021. Criminals exploit encrypted communications to network among each other, use social media and instant messaging services to reach a larger audience to advertise illegal goods or to spread disinformation.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the serious and organized crime landscape in the EU.
  • A potential deep economic recession following the COVID-19 pandemic will fundamentally shape serious and organized crime in the EU for the near future.
  • Serious and organized crime deeply affects all layers of society; in addition to the direct impact on the daily lives of EU citizens, it also undermines the economy, state institutions and the rule of law.


Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.