A Classroom on Illicit Trade Turns into a Pandemic-Inspired Policy Laboratory

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 louise shelley

Originally published on May 18, 2020

In the midst of a pandemic, Schar School Professor Louise Shelley is forging a unique opportunity to teach students in her Illicit Trade class exactly how criminal groups and illicit networks are capitalizing on the instability and confusion created by crises such as COVID-19. The class was turned into a laboratory of ideas for policy recommendations to combat these illicit activities.

Students had readings on “money mules” where ordinary individuals are recruited—often unwittingly—to launder money for criminal groups. “We had discussed in class that, with so much unemployment, there will be a rise of recruitment for money mules,” said Shelley.

After researching, students soon had personal examples of individuals trying to recruit them as money mules. They were offered by e-mail or via a community news board opportunities to earn $500 weekly for “administrative work” for a “financial services office” that was expanding its business. It soon became clear that criminals were the primary actors benefitting from the pandemic and were taking advantage of the instability caused by the crisis.

At the same time, Shelley, who is founding director of the Schar School’s Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, “virtually” attended the monthly meeting of the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis (CINA) scientific committee, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security that is hosted by George Mason University.

Participants discussed a paper under preparation on the response of criminal networks to COVID-19. In the discussions with Homeland personnel, there was great interest in the informed insights of the Schar School students on money mules, human trafficking, and the aggressive movement of crime groups into natural resource crime including illegal logging and poaching. It was agreed that the students would be credited in the analytical paper that will go on the CINA website and be provided to DHS.

The paper, entitled The Effects of the COVID-19 Response on Criminal Network Activity and Investigation, now has contributions from four students in Shelley’s class. The students’ discussions not only contributed to the analysis of the methods of online recruitment of money launderers but also the trends in human trafficking. 

The students’ professional experience—and their now trained eyes as observers of illicit trade—has made them capable of identifying and describing important trends. Despite the unconventional virtual classroom situation, students are taking advantage of the unique perspectives of the Schar School to turn life and job experience into informed policy by providing recommendations and ideas to decision makers. 

“We have taken this difficult moment and used our students’ insights to help inform national policy,” said Shelley.

Rebecca Cooper is a second year Master’s in International Security student at the Schar School. Currently, she works as a Research Assistant at TraCCC and is a Policy Fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies (CSPS), and starting in the summer, she will work for the Transportation Security Administration in their Office of Intelligence and Analysis.