The Ecosystem for Organized Crime (and how to disrupt Food Fraud vulnerabilities)

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source: Food Fraud Initiative, 12/14/2016.

This is a summary of Markus Felson’s 2006 report and presentation on The Ecosystem for Organized Crime (Felson, 2006). As is consistent with his other works and Situational Crime Prevention in general, the most efficient focus is on how and why a crime opportunity exists – which is more than just catching bad guys or bad product.

Before getting into the details of this report it is important to take a moment to consider the concepts of “organized crime,” “crime that is organized” and “criminal cooperation.” Felson often addresses the public perception where “The televised version of organized crime depicts highly organized people in business suits sitting around a table for meetings, with intricate coordination across a vast field, and a certain brilliance of mind.” Felson emphasizes that “Scholars have long told us that the televised version of organized crime is substantially wrong – that most organized crime is much smaller in scale and coordination.” From a personal communication last week with Dr. Felson he stated, “Sometimes organized crime is very organized, such as in places where the state is very weak. Sometimes it is more a network. Sometimes it is more rudimentary.”

Felson provided a footnote in the report regarding the organized crime term that “Note 4: I use the term “criminal cooperation and organization” because of my allergic reaction to the term “organized crime.” The latter conveys a specific image popularized by television, one not substantiated by scholarship and experience. However, this [ecosystem] paper does not include all criminal cooperation, much of which is too rudimentary to fit under the rubric of “organized crime,” rightly understood.”

The ecosystem in this reference is not the components of the crime opportunity (see the Crime Triangle including victim, criminal/ fraudster, and guardian) but the attributes or activities that feed an entire criminal organism. For a very simplistic example from nature, bugs are eaten by birds that are eaten by mammals that then decompose to become nutrients for the bugs.

Crime convergence settings: “The following scale helps us understand how cooperative crime surfaces and where it is most exposed to interference:

  • Public Settings – Minimal supervision, easy contact with strangers
  • Semipublic Settings – Transition and transfer settings seen by many, but not all
  • Semi-private Settings – Transition and transfer settings seen by a few
  • Private Settings – Limited access”

“The Web of Crime Cooperation: The interplay of many crimes produces a web of interdependence.  […] This web of crime cooperation exposes each crime to a larger environment, without which it cannot thrive. [Felson has] explained elsewhere the multitude of interdependencies between illegal and legal activities.”

  • “Small time thefts lead to fencing stolen goods,
  • Providing thieves money,
  • For purchasing small amounts of illegal drugs,
  • Contributing to small-time drug dealing,
  • Feeding into large-scale drug dealing.”

So, considering the concepts that crime is difficult to observe and that there is a symbiotic relationship between hierarchies of crime actors, Felson builds upon other Situational Crime Prevention theories to present some – where Felson admittedly refers to them as “unusual” – guidelines to efficiently address a crime problem:

“These ideas lead me towards an unusual set of recommendations for understanding organized crime in society, as well as reducing it:

  • Focus on the acts, not the group engaging in it.
  • Divide cooperative and organized crimes into very specific types.
  • Study the vast variation in criminal cooperation and organization.
  • Assume minimal levels of cooperative complexity, that such crime is seldom ingenious.
  • Don’t follow the money; follow the physical transactions.
  • Don’t look for deep secrets; look for the obvious and almost obvious.
  • Find out how one crime depends on another.
  • Find out how crime feeds off legitimate and marginal activities.
  • Tease out the sequence of events for ongoing criminal cooperation.
  • Interfere with that sequence, access to the customer, or modus operandi.”

To consider each idea in relation to Food Fraud prevention, further discussion is provided here. The incident used for this example is the UK 2012 incident where lower cost horsemeat was illegally and fraudulently blended into product that was presented as 100% beef.

  • “Focus on the acts, not the group engaging in it.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, focus on the vulnerability or system weakness, not the perpetrators. For horsemeat, this would be a focus on where and how the fraud was enabled to occur, not the fraudsters.
  • “Divide cooperative and organized crimes into very specific types”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, focus on very specific types of fraud acts within the bigger crime. For horsemeat, this could be narrowing the focus to the documentation vulnerability.
  • “Study the vast variation in criminal cooperation and organization.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, this would be to assess how the seemingly common fraud acts differ. For horsemeat, this could be to consider the specific relationships and capabilities that led to each fraud act, not the overall horsemeat vulnerability.
  • “Assume minimal levels of cooperative complexity, that such crime is seldom ingenious.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, this is first to consider very simple vulnerabilities and straight-forward countermeasures. For horsemeat, this could be announcing to suppliers that species tests will be conducted. Remember, the goal is not to catch food fraud but to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
  • “Don’t follow the money; follow the physical transactions.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, it is important to remember that the fraud acts are not the end objective. Making money off the fraud is the goal. A disruption at the very end of the supply chain could vastly increase the risk of getting caught or increase the cost of conducting the crime. In Felon’s terms, the “Ecosystem” would be disrupted. For horsemeat, this could be an organization conducting even just a few, but routine, market species tests.
  • “Don’t look for deep secrets; look for the obvious and almost obvious.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, building on item 4, it is efficient to start with the most basic and most obvious vulnerabilities. While there may be more clandestine and complex actions occurring, addressing the simplest crimes may create a ripple effect to all of the more complex crimes. If anything, there is a statement to the marketplace – and more importantly to any fraudster who may be lurking in the supply chain – that there is an increased focus and scrutiny. For horsemeat, this could build upon the discussion in item 4 to start with a focus on straightforward fraud acts.
  • “Find out how one crime depends on another.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, this builds upon the previous items to consider the “Ecosystem” of the fraud act. Each criminal relies on another system to achieve specific goals. For horsemeat, a supplier of meat must have a group that enables the documentation to be forged, the fraudulent company needs a customer who is not aware of the fraud act, doesn’t care, or is complicit. Compared to other types of crime, Food Fraud seems too often to be very simple.
  • “Find out how crime feeds off legitimate and marginal activities.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, the biggest opportunity is to co-mingle fraudulent and legitimate product. The fraudulent supplier needs a buyer for their product. The biggest opportunity is with buyers who are in the legitimate supply chain. After that, there are more opportunities in marginal activities that may have less oversight or controls. For horsemeat, this could be the series of digital brokers who consolidated and coordinated a series of bids that reduced transparency and highlighted the fraud opportunity.
  • “Tease out the sequence of events for ongoing criminal cooperation.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, this is to consider the basic activities or components of the transactions, including vulnerabilities or system weaknesses. It is critical to understand the nuances of specific fraud acts. This deeper focus helps define how a bad guy thought they were making a rational choice to conduct this act – the rational choice is that they perceive they can make a profit and NOT get caught. For horsemeat, the understanding of the sequence of events could identify specific hotspots where even a very simple countermeasure or control system could vastly reduce the fraud opportunity.
  • “Interfere with that sequence, access to the customer, or modus operandi.”
    1. For Food Fraud prevention, this is to define and implement efficient and effective countermeasures or control systems that target very specific parts of the vulnerability and disrupt the ecosystem.

Ultimately, while counterintuitive to many of the food fraud strategies, considering the crime ecosystem concept is very effective since it both identifies the overall system weaknesses and explains the simple and most obvious first steps. If you are investigating or analyzing a food fraud incident, there are many resources to provide you with insight, including this report by Felson on “The Ecosystem for Organized Crime.” Do not reinvent the wheel. First seek out previous works by experts and then adapt them to your problem. FFI.

 

Reference: Felson, M. (2006). The Ecosystem for Organized Crime, Helsinki: European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations, [Accessed December 6, 2018], URL: https://www.heuni.fi/material/attachments/heuni/papers/6Ktmwqur9/HEUNI_papers_26.pdf

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John Spink
Dr. Spink has been focused on product fraud since the Michigan State University’s Food Safety Program and the School of Packaging began research on the topic in 2006. This work expanded to the behavioral sciences and criminology and led to the establishment of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Initiative in 2008. In 2009 the work shifted to the School of Criminal Justice where the Initiative evolved into a Program.