More than 5,000 international organised crime groups are operating throughout the EU, up from 3,600 in 2013.
Europol, the EU police agency, said in a report on Thursday (9 March) that the latest figure is more a reflection of an improved intelligence picture rather than an absolute increase in the number of gangs.
“It is also an indication of shifts in criminal markets and the emergence of smaller groups and individual criminal entrepreneurs,” said Europol’s director Rob Wainwright.
Around 60 percent of those involved in the groups are EU nationals, according to Europol’s latest serious organised crime threat assessment (Socta) report.
The document states that “document fraud, money laundering and the online trade in illicit goods and services are the engines of organised crime in the EU”.
Many of the gangs are also involved in more than one form of crime with things like document fraud emerging as a key criminal activity linked to migration.
Migrant smuggling networks in 2015 earned up to €5.7 billion in profits during the height of the refugee crisis.
Those profits dropped to around €2 billion last year following the sharp drop in the number of people entering the EU.
But despite the fall, the industry still remains comparable to Europe’s illicit drugs market.
Many are offering tailored services that include fraudulent travel and identify documents.
Europol notes that “the distinction between legal and illegal activities is increasingly blurred” in an area that may see taxi or lorry drivers implicated in smuggling.
Document fraud linked to migrant smuggling has also increased in both terms of quality and quantity.
While most use genuine passports by people who resemble the passport holder, others resort to forged, counterfeited, or stolen blanks.
Last year, Greek and Czech police arrested people in an Athens-based network that were charging anywhere from €100 to €3,000 per forged document.
The gang was producing passports, national ID cards, visas, residence cards, asylum seeker registration cards, and driving licenses.