Benjamin Shultz

Disinformation & Artificial Intelligence Researcher

Curriculum vitae

Cartel Recruitment

Online Video Games: A Hotbed for Trafficking

In February 2022, while serving as a trainee at the Council of Europe, Ben began investigating the use of online gaming and virtual reality (OGVR) platforms by organized crime groups as mediums for illicit activities, including cartel recruitment, drug sales, child exploitation, and financial crime. In cooperation with the Council of Europe and the World Customs Organization, this investigation has identified key trends around the use of OGVR platforms by organized crime groups and facilitated detailed criminal intelligence sharing with law enforcement and diplomatic officials from 40+ countries over the last 2+ years.
Detection of illicit activities is far more difficult on OGVR platforms than on social media or the darknet. For one, publicly available information cannot be 'scraped' from OGVR platforms in the way it can from, say, Instagram or X. Moreover, when initial contact between a criminal actor and a victim is made, the conversation is often immediately moved to more 'secure' venues, such as Signal or WhatsApp. Further complicating this picture, in-game currencies and artifacts have been used for both small-scale money laundering and as a form of payment in drug-related transactions. Dozens of cases of cartel recruitment, drug trafficking, child exploitation, and money laundering taking place via OGVR platforms have been publicly documented across the globe.

Thus far, analysis in this domain has largely been conducted in a case study format. As part of this investigation, Ben constructed one of the first repositories of publicly available online gaming safety incidents, providing a centralized location for the storage of such case studies. Two primary findings uncovered from this research are:

1) In more than half of incidents examined, individuals contacted by cartels or other organized crime groups were boys in their teens and twenties, the largest demographic group online today.

2) The U.S.-Mexico border remains the single largest hotspot for illicit activities taking place via OGVR platforms, however, cases have also been observed in Canada, Lebanon, Türkiye, and the U.K.
Ben's work around OGVR platforms and organized crime has been featured at multiple Council of Europe meetings and conferences, in the World Customs Organization's flagship Illicit Trade Report, and in major news media outlets in seven languages, including NBC News, France24, and Forbes.

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