The Police Approach To Fraud Needs A Radical Rethink And Reallocation Of Resources – 10 February 2020

By John Smith Independent Candidate For Police And Crime Commissiomer For Avon And Somerset

The national police inspectorate published a report on fraud last year called “Time to Choose”. It started with this description: “In many ways, fraud is a unique type of crime. There is more of it than there is of other crimes, it is often complex and it has no respect for jurisdictional boundaries. Victims and offenders are often remote from one another, as are the agencies that tackle fraud. Unlike other crimes, there is a national process for reporting fraud and deciding which cases will be investigated.” The unique nature of fraud has led to this different approach with a national reporting agency Action Fraud – it is also clear that this approach is not sufficiently resourced, is not working and is badly letting down victims of fraud and badly affecting confidence in the police.

A recent report by a former Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Sir Craig Mackey set out the scale of the problems with the current systems for dealing with fraud:

  • Fraud accounts for 1 in 3 of all crimes committed in Britain – some 2,000 offences daily;
  • Just 2% of these crimes are prosecuted and fewer than 1% of police officers nationally are involved in the investigation of fraud;
  • 86% of fraud is online – 78% of cases involve offences where the suspects and offenders do not live in the same police area;
  • All fraud must be reported initially to the national agency Action Fraud so that it can allocate cases where a local investigation is needed to a local force;
  • It is clear from the Mackey report and numerous other reports and evidence that the Action Fraud service is not fit for purpose and the public have lost confidence in it – 33% of people who call the Action Fraud reporting line abandon their call; local residents frequently raise concerns with me about it – one recently referred to it as “Inaction Fraud”;
  • As a police officer told the inspectors “fraud does not bang, bleed or shout” so does not get the same attention as other crimes.

What is the situation in Avon and Somerset – they have set up a Vulnerable Victims of Fraud scheme based on national best practice and will risk assess every referral from Action Fraud and the most vulnerable victims will get a home visit and preventative advice. On 5 February, Avon and Somerset released an article about their participation in a national operation against “courier fraud”. This is where fraudsters call someone, pretending to be a police officer or bank official, warning that there are corrupt bank staff intent on stealing their money and ask for their help. Typically, the caller then tells the victim to withdraw a sum of money and a courier is sent to collect it. The ultimate aim of this call is to trick them into handing over money or their bank details. The article (see below) referred to a success story where a taxi driver booked to take a potential victim to a bank to withdraw a large sum of cash became suspicious and alerted the police. http://bit.ly/3blUdib

Nationally there have been over 3,000 victims of courier fraud in the last 2 years and estimated losses of £12m. In Avon and Somerset in 2019 there were at least 28 victims with losses amounting to £127,000. Nationally, victims are predominantly over 60 years of age with the most targeted demographic being females aged between 80 and 89 years. This type of fraud can have a significant and long lasting impact on the victims. My 85-year-old mother was recently targeted by fraudsters claiming she had committed a criminal offence and asking her to pay money in a fine. Thankfully she did not pay but she was left very shocked by the experience, genuinely distressed by the thought she may have committed an offence and feeling very vulnerable in her own home.

Whilst there have been some notable successes against this type of fraud – the response to fraud by the Government and police has not been good enough. In general, this adds up to members of the public feeling that fraudsters are acting with impunity and that a police service struggling to cope with more traditional crimes is not interested in fraud.

What action is needed to address this – it needs a national, regional and local approach:

  • National Reporting – Action Fraud – the Inspector’s report was very critical of Action Fraud but did conclude that because of the nature of fraud and especially the fact that offenders and victims are usually remote from each other that a national reporting and referral mechanism is the right approach. I will lobby the Government to take urgent action to resource Action Fraud properly and ensure it is properly managed so that people reporting to Action Fraud get a proper and timely response;
  • Regional Enforcement and Disruption – there are various policing resources at a South West regional level. It makes sense that specialist enforcement, surveillance and disruption resources are held at a regional level and deployed across the South West – increasingly Organised Crime Groups target this type of crime and the Regional Organised Crime team are well placed to disrupt this and need additional resource.
  • Local Investigation, Prevention and Victim Support – as currently it is best that local forces carry out investigations where the offender is located in their area and that they also support local victims and provide preventative advice. This does need additional investment and I will commit to increasing significantly the amount of the Avon and Somerset budget dedicated to fraud investigations, Vulnerable Victims of Fraud and preventative work. The resources in this area need to be brought more in line with the demand. Investigations is a particular challenge given the critical national shortage of detectives – Avon and Somerset are currently recruiting civilian detectives and fraud is an area where investigators with specialist knowledge but without a warrant could add real value – I will support and resource programmes to bring in specialist, civilian fraud and cybercrime investigators.

Complex fraud – Avon and Somerset does already have an Economic Crime Team which investigates complex fraud including bank fraud and also gets involved in investigations to secure and seize proceeds of crime a share of which can then be reinvested in local crime prevention activities. As a major financial centre outside London Bristol does attract a large number of fraud allegations including bank fraud. In the last few years Thames Valley Police who are viewed as experts in this area have secured a number of convictions including in Operation Hornet against employees of HBOS Bank in Reading. There have been a number of allegations that banks and financial institutions based in Avon and Somerset have committed fraud against borrowers and, in particular, in situations where banks have repossessed family property or farms or threatened to do so. In these cases, it is very important that the borrowers are entitled to have their allegations taken seriously and properly looked at by experienced investigators and – given the complexity of these cases it may also be appropriate for another force or national agency to review them and I support making the resources available to enable that. There have been cases where a number of forces have looked at allegations of bank fraud and concluded that the bank has not committed a fraud. In some of these cases the complainants have lobbied for further reviews and investigations to take place. In a couple of cases Avon and Somerset have been lobbied to reopen investigations even where 2 forces have initially investigated the cases, they have been subject to reviews by national agencies and Thames Valley Police one of the leading forces in this area has also reviewed the investigative decision making. In these cases, the complainants have also alleged that the investigators, senior officers, Police and Crime Commissioners and officials such as myself (I worked in a non banking work related role at a major law firm in Bristol over 10 years ago) are incompetent or corrupt because they do not agree with the investigators’ conclusions. As noted above there is a national shortage of investigators – it is absolutely right that allegations of bank fraud are taken seriously and properly investigated by expert investigators – I would also support another independent review if there are a series of related cases. I do not support repeated reinvestigations of the same incidents however – inevitably this stops investigators helping other victims. I also do not support the unjustified attacks on hard working police investigators and staff. There are civil remedies open to complainants in some of these cases and the PCC’s office has offered to work with complainants to bring claims against banks where they are able to do so.

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