Notorious Irish gang behind fit-to-fly Covid-19 certificates scam

Europol warns of surge in criminal activity aimed at evading coronavirus travel restrictions

epa08964222 Airport security staff members control passengers to enter Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Roissy, outside Paris, France, 25 January 2021. France is now imposing a negative Covid-19 test for European commuters to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.  EPA/YOAN VALAT
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A violent Irish gang best known for stealing rhino horn from museums across Europe has turned its hand to producing fake fit-to-fly coronavirus certificates.

The group, known as the Rathkeale Rovers after the Irish town that is their base, has allegedly used a mobile app that allows them to manually falsify test results that would allow infectious passengers to travel, said policing organisation Europol.

The gang is a loosely-linked organisation of families who spread across the world every year, with authorities in Australia, the US and throughout Europe reporting crimes connected with the gang.

The involvement of the Rovers in coronavirus scams was included in an intelligence alert issued by Europol, which gathers information from forces from across the EU.

It said that police had dismantled another forgery ring selling negative test results to passengers at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for up to €300 ($363).

Senior members of the gang were jailed in 2016 in England after being convicted of horn and jewellery heists. Durham Police
Senior members of the gang were jailed in 2016 in England after being convicted of horn and jewellery heists. Durham Police

Fraudsters were identified at Luton Airport in the UK and another group was found to be selling false documents by faking the name of a genuine laboratory on the certificates. Further scams were identified in Spain and the Netherlands selling bogus documents online and through messaging apps.

The use of high-quality software and printers has made it easy for gangs to forge documents.

“The detection of fake Covid-19 negative test certificates confirms that criminals – be it organised crime groups or individual opportunistic scammers – seize profitable opportunities once they arise,” Europol said.

“As long as travel restrictions remain in place due to the Covid-19 situation, it is highly likely that production and sales of fake test certificates will prevail.”

The gangs have identified an opportunity as an increasing number of countries only allow passengers to travel by air – and in some cases by international train and coach services – if they are able to present proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

Europol previously alerted member states to the activities of the Rovers following museum raids across Europe in 2011 targeting rhino horn.

The gang initially stole rhino horn from auction houses, museums and private properties to sell to Asian buyers, who can sell it on to those believing it has medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.

The criminals progressed to stealing Chinese antiquities using their existing network of buyers and were responsible for raids on British museums, including Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012 where 18 precious and delicate artefacts worth tens of millions of pounds were stolen. None of the items from the raid were recovered.

Conservator Edward Cheese cleans marble sculptures at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as they make final preparations to reopen to the general public following the easing of lockdown restrictions in England. (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge was hit by the Rathkeale Rovers in 2016, the gang making off with a haul of Chinese antiquities worth up to £57 million ($77.9m). Getty Images

The scale of criminality sparked demands for action from the top of the UK government and led to a pan-European police operation that brought some of the leaders to book and for a time suppressed the gang’s criminal activities.

Senior members of the gang were jailed in 2016 in England after being convicted of horn and jewellery heists in the UK, but they have now served their sentences.