National Crime Agency says criminals moving away from geographical structures to individuals with ‘unique selling points’ in different crimes 

Investigators have seen offenders specialised in cybercrime, illicit finance, modern slavery, human trafficking and child abuse moving between different gangs
Investigators have seen offenders specialised in cybercrime, illicit finance, modern slavery, human trafficking and child abuse moving between different gangs ( Reuters )

The threat from organised crime is “growing and evolving at breakneck speed” as specialist criminals freelance for gangs across the country, the head of theNational Crime Agency (NCA) has warned.

Officials said the money would build capacity in areas including digital forensics, covert surveillance and financial investigations.

Lynne Owens likened the phenomenon to the rise of the gig economy in lawful trades, seeing criminal “specialists” commit cyberattacks, launder money and run guns and drugs.

“If you’re a criminal who has got a really good piece of malware, you might sell it to different crime groups that you work with,” the NCA director-general told journalists in central London.

“The basic business model seen an offender identifying themselves as a specialist. 

“So they might be a specialist money muler [who transfers criminal profits], or they might be a specialist cyber interrogator, or somebody who is just prepared to be a drugs or firearms runner.

“Once they have worked out their unique selling point, they then sell it to different crime groups.”

Ms Owens said investigators had seen offenders specialised in cybercrime, illicit finance, modern slavery, human trafficking and child abuse moving between different gangs.

The NCA’s annual strategic assessment said that as rising numbers of children and young adults get involved in organised crime, the structures familiar to law enforcement are shifting.

“In parts of the UK, crime groups made up almost exclusively of young people have emerged, adopting business-like operating models rather than relying on identity or postcode,” it said.

“Across crime types, a growing threat derives from criminals acting individually, without the infrastructure of established organised crime groups (OCGs).”

Officials warned that new technology, such as the dark web, encrypted services and digital currencies, were allowing criminals to evade law enforcement and hide their activities and networking.

Ms Owens said technology had “fundamentally changed the nature of serious and organised crime”. 

“When I joined law enforcement 30 years ago, people in organised crime groups had to be in close proximity to one another,” she added. 

“They had identities within a geographical location. What we see now with technology is they can just connect online and be very loosely connected, which makes it much harder to identify a defined structure.”

The NCA estimates that at least 181,000 offenders are linked to serious and organised crime in the UK – more than twice the strength of the regular British Army.

The agency said the “staggering scale” of criminality was underestimated, despite killing more people than terrorism, war and natural disasters combined and costing the UK £37bn a year.

The NCA said £2.7bn more funding was needed for law enforcement agencies to combat the gangs over the next three years.

“Some will say we cannot afford to provide more investment, but I say we cannot afford not to,” Ms Owens said.

“The choice is stark. Failing to invest will result in the gradual erosion of our capabilities and our ability to protect the public.”

She made the appeal to police officers, investigators, civil servants and politicians who gathered for the launch of the NCA’s annual report in London on Tuesday.

Ben Wallace, the security minister, told the delegation he had “sympathy” for Ms Owens’ call for more funding but did not commit to answering it with extra cash.

He said the government’s spending review was on its way, adding: “We hear the agencies and police loud and clear.”

Mr Wallace said the private sector was also easing pressure on law enforcement by “stepping up” to combat the abuse of financial services and technology by criminals.