The European Union's police co-ordination agency opened a new cybercrime unit today to combat online offences from banking fraud to peddling images of child sex abuse.

But as the European Cybercrime Centre, or EC3, officially opened its doors at Europol's Hague headquarters Friday, European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom conceded it will be playing catch-up with organized crime gangs revelling in a "Golden Age" of cybercrime.

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European police agencies say online payment card fraud generates an estimated $2 billion a year for criminals. (IStock)

Online criminals, she said, "are ahead of us when it comes to imagination and co-operation."

Europol is fighting back with experts huddled around computer screens in blue-lit "labs," monitoring internet traffic and able to retrieve data users believe they have deleted from their cellphone or computer hard disks.

The agency says online payment card fraud generates an estimated $2 billion a year, while recent international investigations into pedophiles trafficking child abuse images on the internet have led to hundreds of arrests worldwide.

Europol expert Valerio Papajorgji said the new centre will chase criminals who attempt to conceal their activities in parts of the internet and online networks not generally accessed by regular users or search engines, known as the "deep web" and "darknet."   

It also will track and tackle malicious software used to steal personal and banking information from people's computers and empty their online accounts.

Centre aims to co-operate with other agencies

Europol director Rob Wainwright called the establishment of the centre a milestone in Europe's fight against crime and efforts to deny criminals "the cyberspace and opportunity they are currently exploiting to harm governments, businesses and citizens."

The European centre aims to co-operate with other such agencies around the world, and Wainwright signed a letter of intent on co-operation with John Morton, director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has a long-established cybercrime unit known as C3.

Morton said cross-border teamwork is key to tackling cybercrime, which knows no borders.

"This level of international co-operation is not just an ideal or something to be wished for but rather a necessity," he said at the opening ceremony in The Hague.

"You literally cannot investigate and prosecute these cases any more — the large-scale ones — over the internet without very strong international co-operation."