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BLOG: Fraud is now an epidemic within a pandemic – the upcoming fraud strategy needs to be bold and ambitious

Fraud has become the volume crime of our times — an epidemic within a pandemic. Yet you wouldn’t know it, to judge from the criminal justice system’s response.

An edited version of this blog first appeared in the Sunday Times on 8 August 2021.

Nearly all of us have received them. The near-daily text messages from ‘Royal Mail’ demanding overdue postage in order to release a non-existent package. The robotic phone calls declaring entitlement to compensation following some fabricated road incident. Most notorious of all, the seemingly endless calls from ‘HMRC’ to pay up now or face the full force of the state.

At this point, hanging up in exasperation, or deleting the constant barrage of these messages is second nature to many of us. We’re so used to these near-daily encounters that we might not give them a second thought. But whatever the method, whatever its frequency, there’s no doubt it is highly likely that you and those close to you have been impacted by fraud in some way.

You may think that it is only the vulnerable and the foolish who fall for these scams. You’d be wrong. Any one of us can fall victim to fraud – it just takes a moment for us to be caught off-guard, caught unawares, and to make a simple but life-changing mistake. Just recently I have twice been asked to discuss fraud in the media as a result of clued-up, experienced journalists finding they themselves had fallen victim to fraud and were determined to warn others of just how easy it is be tricked and scammed.

Because fraud has now reached epidemic proportions. The scale of its recent growth is truly staggering. Last week, the annual crime statistics were published and they made for stark reading. According to the Telephone Crime Survey for England & Wales, since 2019 fraud has risen by just shy of a quarter (24%).

To put this in context, theft decreased by a full 20% over the same period. It now seems undeniable that Covid and the multiple lockdowns that followed provided fertile ground for a spike in scams and fraud.

This is of huge concern for me as Victims’ Commissioner. Fraud has become the volume crime of our times – an epidemic within a pandemic. It is the biggest crime in England and Wales by a whopping margin, accounting for as much as 39% of all crime in the year ending March 2021. That’s nearly two in every five crimes. What’s more, it’s often the most vulnerable in our society who are targeted. Yet you wouldn’t know it judging by the criminal justice system’s response.

For too long, the criminal justice system has treated fraud as the poor relation to other crime types which are, perhaps, more straightforward to deal with. Fraud is under-reported, under-prioritised, under-investigated and, most importantly of all in my view, its victims are under-supported.

Through my work and speaking to victims, I am well aware of fraud’s devastating impact. I regularly receive scores of letters and emails from victims recounting their experiences. In nearly all of these, there are clear tales of a lack of victim support, both within police forces and specialised organisations such as Action Fraud. All experienced little to no victim care.

I hear directly from victims on how there is no clear pathway to access support and no sense of who could take up their concerns or support them without having to fall back on civil or private prosecutions – hardly an option for many. Some victims face a merry-go-round of contacting different bodies in the hope that someone somewhere might just take an interest in their case.

Of the tiny minority who are lucky enough to secure criminal action, we know that cases can run into years without help. This can have a terrible impact, especially on vulnerable victims, who may have incurred steep financial losses and who must live with the resulting debt, stress and misery.

In 2019, the policing inspectorate examined the police response to fraud and found it wanting. This week, it published its follow up report. It concludes that two years on, victims of fraud are still receiving poor service from the police and are being denied justice. It found that fraud continues to be treated as a low-priority or victimless crime when that is from far the case.

Because fraud can have a devasting impact, both financially and emotionally. The long-lasting harm suffered by victims is regularly underplayed. Yet it can potentially be financially disastrous for individuals and their families, and it can have a huge impact on self-esteem and mental health. Ignoring this only serves to impede the commitment to tackling this crime and to supporting victims.

The government has said fraud is firmly in its sights. In its Beating Crime Plan, published last week, it promises to replace Action Fraud, the central hub for reporting fraud incidents, with an improved national fraud and cybercrime reporting system. It promises to increase investigative capacity. And it promises better support for victims of fraud by expanding the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit, which looks after vulnerable victims and is currently available across five police forces.

I welcome these initiatives and will follow the progress as this unfolds. But it is striking that of the 20,000 words in the Beating Crime Plan, just 264 were dedicated to tackling fraud. Also disappointing was the Online Safety Bill, currently before Parliament. Fraud barely got a mention, despite online scams being a major and escalating concern. We will need to await the government’s fraud action plan, which is expected later this year, to truly see just how committed the government is in this area. But it’s clear that time is of the essence.

From my side, I will be publishing a report in the next few months which will explore the types of people who become fraud victims. I want to understand who they are, and what levels of support they may need. Next year, I will follow this up with a review of how victims are supported, highlighting good practice and shining a light on where the practice is less good.

As Victims’ Commissioner, fraud is well within my sights. I am looking to the government to hold firm on its promise to do better for fraud victims. The publication of the government’s fraud strategy can’t come soon enough – it needs to be bold, ambitious and backed up by significant resourcing. Anything less will be a disservice to victims and a boon to fraudsters.