On 25 May 2021, the National Crime Agency (NCA) published its national strategic assessment of serious and organised crime. Compared to 2020, the NCA concludes that the threat to the UK in respect of bribery and corruption has increased dramatically. Reasons for this include both the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.

Key takeaways from the report are as follows.

Criminal use of technology

The criminal use of technology has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the fact that moving physical cash has become increasingly difficult during national lockdowns. Encryption has emerged as a key enabler for organised crime. Criminals have taken advantage of increasingly common secure messaging applications to obscure messages. WhatsApp and Twitter have both recently implemented an automatic disappearing message functionality which increases privacy for both regular users, as well as criminals using the services for illegitimate purposes.

Money laundering

The Covid-19 pandemic has made it harder to launder cash, accelerating the criminal use of other methods of money laundering such as via cryptoassets. It is thus unsurprising that measures were adopted this past year to bring cryptoassets within scope of the UK Money Laundering Regulations; mitigating the risk of their exploitation. Whilst broader adoption of cryptoasset technology by mainstream financial services may provide a larger market for criminal exploitation, anti-money laundering measures should mitigate this risk.

Bribery and corruption

Increased home working during the Covid-19 pandemic may have reduced the ability of organisations to monitor staff and identify unusual behaviour. Because of this, certain employees may be more tempted to engage in bribery and corruption. There is also a realistic prospect that as UK businesses recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and adapt to post-Brexit trading, they may be more likely to consider trade opportunities in alternative jurisdictions. Such jurisdictions may present a higher corruption risk for businesses.

Additionally, variations in market behaviour due to the Covid-19 pandemic have made it more difficult to recognise suspect bribery and corruption payments. For example, it has become difficult for some businesses to differentiate between genuine payments of increased market rates for goods, and bribery and corruption payments being marketed as such.