The route to a more effective police response to fraud

Blog post

The route to a more effective police response to fraud

The long-standing concerns around the state and effectiveness of the current police response to fraud in England and Wales have been laid bare by an HMICFRS inspection report published last week. It found a service on the ground that is failing to provide justice, support or protection to the burgeoning numbers of victims reporting these crimes. Key factors underpinning the failings include the absence of a strategy to guide the patchwork police response and the lack of prioritisation afforded to fraud. Many of the findings of this report are supported by the research published by the Police Foundation in December last year.

HMICFRS highlighted the unique way fraud is policed. The 2006 Fraud Review set in motion the introduction of Action Fraud and a more nationally coordinated police response. However, the reality is that this coordination is limited to setting out the pieces on a 43 police force board; once assigned, investigation and victim care is left to autonomous local teams working to local frames of reference and resource. Our research found limited strategic or practitioner understanding of the nuances and risks contained within fraud (now a third of crime experienced in England and Wales) and as a result, uncertainty over how and when they should be delivering a response.

Fraud is different, not only because of the unique police response architecture but because of the composition of the problem itself. There are a number of intrinsic characteristics that relegate it to the peripheries of mainstream policing policies, practices and culture.

  • The observation that “fraud does not bang, bleed, or shout” would seem an obvious point to make, but this reference within the HMICFRS report succinctly demonstrates the standing of fraud within the mission and priorities of local policing. Fraudsters seldom require physical confrontation, threatening behaviour or trespass to successfully commit crime. Our research found over two-thirds (69%) of crimes assigned to investigation were in some way perpetrated over the internet and in over three quarters (78%) of cases the fraudster and victim lived in separate police force areas. The absence of physical threat affects perspectives on the vulnerability and needs of victims and the seriousness of the offending. Equivalent thresholds for calibrating seriousness on the basis of financial loss are set to such a level that most fall well short.
  • Many experiences of victimisation come as a direct consequence of the victim’s own actions; nearly two-thirds (63%) of fraud reported to the police involved a victim giving advance payments for fraudulent products or services such as shares or goods purchased online. While fraudsters develop ever more sophisticated methods for engineering communications and environments (especially online) in order to trick people into giving money, it can affect the standing of these victims relative to victims of other crimes. Fraud victims can be seen as less deserving for not acting with sufficient due diligence, failing to protect themselves or for acting out of greed.
  • Many fraudsters offend indiscriminately across a wide attack surface, taking relatively small amounts of money from high volumes of people that add up to make significant gains. To illustrate, our research estimated at least 31% of fraud was linked to serious, persistent and sophisticated criminals, including volume frauds such as mass-marketing fraud (38%). These are fraudsters perpetrating serious crimes that are geographically dispersed and diffuse in impact. As a volume cybercrime, fraud struggles to gain traction among local decision-makers because it calls for a perspective on harm that looks beyond any single victim or jurisdiction.
  • The HMICFRS report describes how fraud fails to register as a priority when viewed against crimes such as firearms and child sexual exploitation. This is unsurprising considering these crimes are among the most serious the police deal with. That said they constitute a small element of police business, so why is fraud placed in the same frame? One reason is likely to be the perceived capability requirement. Many cases are underpinned by sophisticated methods to perpetrate the fraud and evade detection including money laundering, identity theft, computer misuse, organised crime and corruption. These add layers of complexity to an investigation; only one in five police staff (22%) felt they had the right skills to deal with fraud. Understandably, assigning costly specialist teams to tackle a challenging but low priority crime is seldom seen as ‘proportionate’.
  • For other crimes the evidence can often be found within the community, but the evidence and intelligence in fraud is stored outside of police force borders, particularly in the financial and online commercial sectorsor where overseas law enforcement is involved. Investigators project manage long and bureaucratic stages of application to access data, and success can be as much in the hands of these external stakeholders as the police. This not only erodes the sense of control but also expectations of what outcomes are likely to be achieved.

Fraud is different, comprised of modi operandi and victims that fail to mesh with the values and ways of doing things at the local level. Also as it is a volume and complex crime fraud calls for expertise and techniques that are the preserve of small specialist teams which do not prioritise it. Rising volumes and the expressed views of practitioners suggest it is becoming the offence of choice due to minimal risk and substantive gains. The problem is unlikely to change but the way fraud is framed may need to be.

Fraud encompasses a huge range of offending and demand in terms of seriousness and complexity, impact, victimisation and complexity of investigation, characteristics that are rarely presented  clearly to those tasked to respond locally. The nationalisation of processes for recording and processing crime reports is necessary, but the downward flow to local police forces reduces fraud demand to an undifferentiated data stream. The framing of the problem is important for helping practitioners to make more informed and considered decisions. Home Office guidance for systematising police decision-making was recently rescinded because it reinforced some of the assumptions and biases that downgraded fraud victimisation but what is left to help police understand the demand, rationalise what is being done and assess its effectiveness?

Hearts and minds will be slow to change but framing the problem in the language of threat, risk, harm and vulnerability would seem a necessary first step. The City of London Police compiles substantive repositories of fraud data that is not being effectively translated for responders on the ground. New ways to interrogate and interpret this data present an opportunity to reframe the problem in a way that articulates why and in what circumstances fraud should become a priority.

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