Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.
Since the revelations by The Times newspaper that unearthed the failings of Action Fraud earlier this year, no-one can be under any impression that the mechanism for dealing with fraud, online crime, and scams is fit for purpose in this country. Although The Times and other news outlets trumpeted this disclosure with surprise, it has been widely acknowledged by many for some time that they system simply does not work.
Action Fraud is hosted by the City of London Police and the principle is simple enough. Fraud and online crime are unique by their lack of geographical footprint. Therefore we have a single point of contact across the nation for anyone to report. At this central point, these reports can be collated and sent to the most appropriate police force to investigate further.
On paper, so far so good, but the reality of the situation and the limitations of the system mean that the service provided to the public falls well short of expectations. The press reports have highlighted the failure of the call handlers at Action Fraud to deal with members of the public appropriately and to record the offences correctly, but the failings are more systematic than just behavioural issues with staff.
Cases fed into Action Fraud are supposed to be triaged in order to identify those cases that have realistic lines of enquiry. Those cases which are not likely to be able to be progressed should at least help to form part of an intelligence picture, but all too often disappear into a black hole – and victims remain uninformed about the prospects of any kind of outcome whatsoever.
Even if it is determined that a case can be progressed the response can be piecemeal. Police Forces across the country have a wide range of capabilities in dealing with fraud, particularly online fraud. The nature of this type of crime typically means that even when cases are allocated the victims and perpetrators are often not in the same part of the country.
In Thames Valley we have increased the investment in our Economic Crime team and have some fantastic officers who have led groundbreaking investigations. There is further capacity in the Regional Organised Crime Unit, which is also hosted by Thames Valley, but our ability to deal with complex fraud and cyber crime is still inadequate, and I believe our Force is probably one of the best.
There is a national failing here. Whether it is large scale banking fraud or individual scams reported to Action Fraud, we simply don’t have a system to adequately investigate and prosecute. Police Forces will always have a role to play in the relatively low level, and geographically simple, frauds. At a time when the focus has understandably fallen on the dangers of physical harm and exploitation, the threat of financial crime has become less of a priority. Across the country the police need to step up to the challenge and ensure that in all areas of fraud and cyber crime, their officers are properly trained and equipped to tackle a rapidly evolving threat.
More important though, is the lack of clarity at a government level about who is responsible. The City of London host Action Fraud and have some responsibility for financial crime nationally, but their capacity is limited. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) seem to compete with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) when it comes to banking fraud. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) are just one of numerous agencies who have seldom used powers to prosecute. The National Crime Agency (NCA) sounds like a body that could be in charge, yet it remains just one of many with competing demands who often put fraud in the “too difficult” box.
It is time for a complete rethink about the way we approach fraud and cyber crime in Britain. There are too many agencies with overlapping responsibilities. Yet another body, the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC) has been created to coordinate these efforts. I wish them success but I am sceptical about the likely outcome.
Instead a more radical approach is needed. Many of these organisations could be swept aside and a new anti-fraud agency created to deal with the systematic threats to our economy and to individuals of both cyber crime and fraud. Often these offences can be just the tip of the iceberg of serious organised crime. Rather than pushing fraud back to the back of the cupboard we must meet head on one of the biggest challenges facing the public. Whilst the number one concern of the public in most surveys on crime will remain violence and burglary offences, they are much more likely to become the victims of fraud than traditional acquisitive crime. It is time to follow the money and take radical steps to address the risk and take real action against fraud.