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COVID-19 may have changed the world of Australians in 2020, but not the world of crime – for Australian Federal Police (AFP) Eastern Command there has been a significant increase in investigations, seeing more than 1000 child exploitation-related charges laid and 22.4 tonnes of drugs stopped from reaching the community.

AFP Assistant Commissioner Eastern Command Justine Gough said the extent of operational activity in NSW has not slowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with 282 offenders charged with Commonwealth offences this year.

“We have seen criminal syndicates attempting to import commercial quantities of illicit drugs through various methods, from drugs hidden in hydraulic cylinders to banana pulp, with drug seizures increasing 113% from 10.5 in 2019 to 22.4 tonnes in 2020,” AC Gough said.

“However, as creative as these syndicates get, the AFP and our partners quickly adapt to their changing methodologies.”

One major seizure in 2020 was Operation Romani, which saw five people arrested in April and July for their alleged roles in a criminal conspiracy to import approximately one tonne of methamphetamine into Australia via a yacht.

AFP Eastern Command’s Child Protection Operations team has seen the consequences of more alleged offenders spending an increasing amount of time online this year, producing, sharing and accessing horrific child sexual abuse material.

The large-scale child protection investigation known as Operation Arkstone has unfolded against the backdrop of COVID-19. It began in February and has since resulted in 39 child victims identified in NSW, with nine men arrested in NSW for approximately 600 charges, ranging from producing or accessing child abuse material through to bestiality offences.

“Australia is a safer place for children in NSW thanks to the tireless work of our investigators and their counterparts. These are unimaginable crimes against some of the community’s most vulnerable, but we hope our work ensures offenders are put before the courts and gives the child victims a better life.”

The AFP-led Criminal Assets Confiscation Taskforce (CACT) has also achieved significant results in 2020. In NSW alone, the CACT restrained $32 million worth of assets from criminal entities, which is a 183% increase since last year.

“These funds are being redirected by the Commonwealth Government to crime prevention, law enforcement and other community initiatives. It’s about taking the profit out of crime and putting that money to better use.”

In October, in an Australian first, a Belgian tourist convicted in NSW as part of Operation Veltelan resulted in a child sex offender having their assets restrained as a result of their offending. The activity is part of the new and aggressive strategy by the AFP-led CACT, announced in 2020, to confiscate the assets from offenders who sexually exploit children and profit from the distribution of horrific child abuse material.

Eastern Command Counter-Terrorism investigators in the High Risk Terrorist Offenders (HRTO) team and NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) with their counterparts have not stopped in their pursuit to identify threats in 2020 and ensure the safety and security of the Australian community.

In December, NSW JCTT investigators charged an 18-year-old Albury man with the terrorism-related offences of urging violence and advocating terrorism. It is alleged he regularly used social media forums and communication applications during 2020 to encourage other people to commit violent acts in furtherance of an extreme right-wing ideology.

“Counter-Terrorism investigators have a difficult, but rewarding job knowing their actions have potentially saved the lives of many Australians.”

With the impacts of COVID-19, this has seen AFP Eastern Command also respond to new and emerging threats to protect the community, with cyber criminals scamming Australians out of their hard-earned money and other fraudsters claiming bushfire and COVID-19-related welfare benefits they are not entitled to.

In September and December, two Sydney men were charged as part of Operation Genmaicha for their alleged involvement in an Australian-based fraud syndicate working to steal identities and money from thousands of Australians through a SMS phishing scheme. The text messages purporting to be from Australian banks and telecommunications companies resulted in one bank alone claiming 45 of its customers had been victims of the phishing attack with $30,000 stolen from a single customer.

Taskforce Iris investigators made their first arrest in April, charging a Western Sydney man for allegedly using 53 fictitious identities to submit fraudulent bushfire and COVID-19-related welfare claims. It is alleged 68 false claims were identified from this man at a total of $35,000, where the total potential value of the fraud was $70,500.

AFP Eastern Command through Taskforce Iris – established in April 2020 – worked closely with Services Australia and NSW Police Force to identify people and groups planning to defraud the Government’s COVD-19 stimulus measures which was designed to help those affected by COVID-19 and the bushfires.

AC Gough commended AFP Eastern Command staff members for their adaptability in responding to COVID-19 challenges to ensure operational outcomes were not impacted.

“The dedication of our members in Eastern Command and their agility to adapt through the challenges 2020 has been remarkable,” AC Gough said.

“We have seen our airport team’s pivot from protecting traveling Australians at Sydney Airport to being involved in one of the largest coordinated efforts to assist bring Australians home and into quarantine.”

“The number of search warrants obtained from the Downing Centre alone show the high tempo our investigators have committed to this year, with 346 warrants on persons, premises and vehicles obtained in 2020, which is more than double the amount from 2019.”

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