The number of paedophiles operating on the dark web and organised crime gangs is more than twice the strength of the British Army, figures reveal.
There are more than 180,000 offenders linked to serious and organised crime in the UK and law enforcement needs billions more in investment to keep up, the National Crime Agency has warned.
Director of the NCA Lynne Owens called the scale of organised crime “staggering” as she warned that the public would “feel the consequences” if funding is not boosted by £2.7 billion over the next three years.
The estimated number of criminals is thought to be a conservative estimate as it only includes members of organised crime gangs and the worst paedophiles operating on the dark web.
An annual assessment by the NCA, published on Tuesday, found that organised crime costs the UK around £37 billion per year.
Ms Owens said: “Serious and organised crime (SOC) in the UK is chronic and corrosive, its scale is truly staggering.
“It kills more people every year than terrorism, war and natural disasters combined.
“SOC affects more UK citizens, more frequently than any other national security threat.
“And it costs the UK at least £37 billion a year, equivalent to nearly £2,000 per family.
“We need significant further investment to keep pace with the growing scale and complexity.
“Enhancing our capabilities is critical to our national security.
“If we don’t, the whole of UK law enforcement, and therefore the public, will feel the consequences.”
As well as dealing with growing demand, the NCA would aim to boost digital forensics, covert surveillance and financial investigations with additional funding.
Ms Owens added: “Some will say we cannot afford to provide more investment, but I say we cannot afford not to.
“The organised criminals of today are indiscriminate, they care less about what types of crime they’re involved in, as long as it makes them a profit.
“These groups are preying on the most vulnerable in society, including young children and the elderly, those most unable to protect themselves.”
She went on: “The choice is stark.
“Failing to invest will result in the gradual erosion of our capabilities and our ability to protect the public.”
The NCA’s annual National Strategic Assessment found that the number of county lines gangs has surged from 720 to more than 2,000 in around a year.
These are drug dealing networks that operate lucrative phone lines, delivering illegal substances from urban bases out into more rural areas.
They are known for forcing young and vulnerable people into crime. The NCA said that in some areas there are now crime gangs nearly solely made up of children and young people.
The 2019 NSA also found:
– traditional organised crime gangs have broken down into networks of younger offenders who use the latest technology, as well as extreme violence, to carry out a range of different crimes
– professionals such as accountants and solicitors are “increasingly facilitating crimes with their expertise”
– the use of the dark web and encryption to avoid detection have grown significantly, with an increase in cryptocurrencies being used to launder money
As well as organised crime, the NSA looked at child abuse, modern slavery and fraud.
It found that:
– there are nearly 2.9 million accounts registered on the worst child sexual abuse sites on the dark web worldwide, around 5% of which are offenders from the UK
– the number of referrals to the NCA from internet firms of suspected online child sexual abuse and exploitation have increased by seven times since 2013.
– referrals of potential victims of modern slavery have increased by more than 80% since 2016.
– There were 3.6 million incidents of fraud reported in England and Wales in 2018, and financial losses from fraud rose by 32% between April and September 2018.