Crime has been changing radically in recent years, particularly with the impact of the internet. Nowhere is this transformation more visible than in the area of fraud, which has gone from being a niche white collar crime to a cyber enabled volume crime affecting millions of victims.
The police have been slow to adapt to this new landscape. The Police Foundation and Perpetuity Research have published a major new report looking at the effectiveness of the police response to fraud, specifically the structures and resources in place to tackle offenders, the support provided to victims and the police approach to fraud prevention. The report exposes a fragmented system in which roles and responsibilities are unclear, a service that is struggling to manage the number of victims coming forward and a systemic lack of focus and prioritisation on fraud.
The introduction of a central reporting hub (Action Fraud) in 2011 was a welcome development, because it provided a clearer understanding of the scale and nature of fraud affecting UK citizens. However, in exposing the problem, it also marked the opening of a Pandora’s box for which the police were unprepared. The Crime Survey estimates that over 3.2 million people were affected by fraud in 2017-18 (ONS, 2018). Most do not report to the police but still, over 200,000 victims did so in 2016-17. So many, that the local police could not acknowledge or engage most of them.
The lack of police preparedness is in part down to widespread confusion about what Action Fraud is for. On its introduction the rest of policing breathed a collective sigh of relief as if they were suddenly alleviated of the fraud problem. However, Action Fraud is a call-handling centre in Scotland, buckling under high volumes of calls, and is neither an enforcement unit nor a victim support service. It creates a clearer understanding of the problem, but does not respond to it. Awareness is slowly dawning that fraud is still very much on police desks.
The main problem with the existing response is that a localised 43 force policing model is inadequate when it comes to tackling a cross border volume crime like fraud. This central problem manifests itself in a number of ways:
Fraud does not fit with local policing priorities
Local police forces are principally driven by the needs of their local public, especially crime that causes the most harm to the most vulnerable individuals. But to tackle fraud they are asked to investigate suspects who victimise people across the country or globe, who may present no risk to people within their own borders and who offend in high volumes but with relatively low impact on each individual victim. Equally, victims who are within their borders are presented in spreadsheets listing crimes they don’t record and so administratively, don’t own. Fraud struggles to get prioritised within existing local systems for assigning resource.
Fraud is a very different type of crime to investigate
Much of fraud is perpetrated remotely, with a locus more in the digital than the physical world, and a crime scene that is virtual rather than physical. Investigations are often retrospective, ‘slow-burn’ and administrative and so tend to sit at the bottom of to-do lists. Gathering the evidence is often contingent on being able to navigate and engage complex networks of external bodies in the private and public sector, which inexperienced practitioners find challenging. The benefits of a local service are lost in these remote, desktop-based investigations, with victim(s), evidence and/or suspect(s) located elsewhere.
Local police forces lack the capability to investigate this type of crime
Specially trained investigators are few in number and play only a marginal role in tackling fraud; our survey showed that in police forces investigations were mostly conducted by generalist investigation (69%) or neighbourhood teams (16%). However, most in our staff survey perceived fraud to require a distinct set of skills (81%), skills they did not feel adequately trained in (78%). Specific gaps included working with digital and financial evidence, and techniques for managing more complex investigations. Investigations slip through wide gaps, by not being serious or ‘complex’ enough for specialists, but too ‘complex’ for everyone else.
So, what should be done? The government needs to outline a clearer police mission in tackling fraud, one that guides practice and clarifies roles and responsibilities. We recommend the government develop a national strategy for tackling fraud, with the City of London Police developing a national fraud policing strategy that sits beneath that. We also recommend that fraud investigation is taken out of local teams and put into dedicated regional investigation hubs. This would lead to more robust and consistent decision-making, better alignment between problem and resource, enhanced investigative capability and improved interconnectivity between the police and their partners. Local police teams can then focus on supporting vulnerable victims, providing prevention advice and responding appropriately to calls for service.
With this form of crime now making up third of all offences and causing real harm to very many victims, it’s time to get a grip on fraud.