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Illicit trade is a modern criminal activity driven by organised crime networks, posing a substantial threat to national security and public safety.

The nature of organised crime in Europe is changing. Organised crime groups are more networked, operate across multiple jurisdictions, and increasingly focus on economic and relatively lower-risk crimes such as illicit trade, whose harm is more difficult to demonstrate. This work strand provides robust and independent research to better understand these trends and to help governments and law enforcement agencies respond to organised crime more effectively.

Researchers from the National Security Studies Group at RUSI regularly attend industry and policy working groups on illicit trade.


Free trade zones are notorious facilitators of illicit trade. The same liberalised characteristics that make FTZs attractive to legitimate businesses also attract abuse by criminal actors. This ongoing project will bridge the gap between this recognition of criminal abuse and a limited understanding of the scale and nature of those risks to date. The first of its kind, the project will produce a decentralised mechanism to enable authorities and business partners to assess overall risk levels in individual FTZs. This project will conduct fieldwork in Panama, Morocco, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

E-Commerce, Delivery Services and the Illicit Tobacco Trade (2018)

The growth of e-commerce and proliferation of postal and small parcel delivery services have transformed the illicit tobacco trade in Europe. Illicit tobacco products are now readily available through online marketplaces, purpose-built hosted websites and social media platforms. Today, platforms such as Facebook appear to have become the primary medium through which illicit tobacco products are sold online, although online marketplace websites continue to be exploited. Some – but not all – of these sellers are highly sophisticated and capable of coordinating long-running operations using multiple addresses, breaking up consignments across service providers. More often, however, social media leads to the ‘digitalisation of street selling’.

The findings of this research were presented to the European Parliament and the EUIPO in Alicante, both in September 2018.

E-Commerce, Delivery Services and the Illicit Tobacco Trade

Small Parcels, Big Risks: The Forgotten Security Dimensions of the EU’s Digital Single Market Strategy (2018)

E-commerce and cross-border delivery services within the EU are about to become more competitive, as new regulations introduced by the European Commission will permit a consumer in France to purchase a Gucci handbag from the company’s Romanian website with greater ease. While consumers are likely to rejoice at renewed efforts to harmonise prices across the single market, organised crime groups reliant on the postal system to traffic illicit goods are also likely to benefit.

Small Parcels, Big Risks: The Forgotten Security Dimensions of the EU’s Digital Single Market Strategy

On Tap UK (2017)

Organised crime is more pervasive in British society than is generally acknowledged and includes often overlooked activities such as illicit trade. The true scale of the illicit trade in the UK is hard to determine, but not impossible to measure. On Tap is the culmination of a twelve-month study on illicit trade conducted in three regions of the UK – the northwest, east and southwest of England. It provides the first in-depth investigation of the intersection of organised crime and illicit trade in tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals, and suggests a number of steps the government and other actors should take to combat the problem.

On Tap: Organised Crime and the Illicit Trade in Tobacco, Alcohol and Pharmaceuticals in the UK

On Tap Europe (2017)

According to Europol, commodity counterfeiting and illicit trade in substandard goods are major emerging criminal markets in the EU. The low risks and high profitability of illicit trade increasingly attract organised crime groups, and the number of counterfeit products seized by law enforcement agencies across Europe continues to increase. This study will provide a comparative analysis of the role of organised crime in the illicit trade of tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals across the EU. The 18-month project gathered evidence from five EU member states – Poland, Spain, Greece, Italy and Romania – assessing the scale, methods and routes of organised criminals involved in illicit trade and identify best practice in policy and law enforcement responses.

On Tap Europe: Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Tobacco, Alcohol and Pharmaceuticals

On Tap Europe: Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Romania: Country Report

On Tap Europe: Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Poland: Country Report

On Tap Europe: Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Spain: Country Report

On Tap Europe: Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Greece: Country Report

On Tap Europe: Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Italy: Country Report

Organised Crime and Illicit Trade in Europe Conference (2016)

21-22 November 2016 | Brussels, Belgium

This two-day RUSI conference brought together representatives from a total of eight European member states to assess the scale and scope of illicit trade across the region, and the extent of organised criminal involvement. It complemented the On Tap Europe project by providing the opportunity to identify common and particular challenges faced by different countries. It also offered the chance for participants to exchange experience and best practice on effective law enforcement and policy responses, and improve cooperation between policy-makers, practitioners, academics and the private sectors in each country.

Attendance at this conference was by invitation only.

This conference was supported by the European Union Programme Hercule III (2014-2020), implemented by the European Commission.

To read the conference report, please click here.


Cathy Haenlein
Director, Organised Crime and Policing +44 (0) 20 7747 4975
Alexandria Reid
Research Fellow, National Security and Resilience