The Victims' Commissioner writes about her research on fraud and the impact it has victims, while also calling for the government to be bold and ambitious in its upcoming fraud strategy.
This blog first appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 13 October 2021.
Fraud is huge. It now accounts for 39% of all crime – nearly two in every five crimes. But not only is it immense in scale, it’s growing at astonishing speed.
Since 2019 and under Covid, fraud grew by almost a quarter (24 per cent). Crime estimates suggest there were 4.6 million fraud offences in 2020-21. That makes it – by quite some distance – the largest category of crime. There’s no doubting that fraud is one of the volume crimes of our times.
But despite its prevalence, when we think of the word ‘victim’, fraud is probably not one of the first crimes that springs to mind.
Yet fraud can be a very high-harm offence and victims can suffer greatly. Fraud can be a deeply intimate and interpersonal crime, causing long-lasting emotional trauma as well as financial loss.
We know that the police response to fraud is still not good enough. Presently, only around 2% of police resources are committed to tackling fraud. It’s hard to see how that’s even remotely commensurate to the task. Which is perhaps why out of 8oo,ooo reports and 3 million victims there were fewer than 8,000 fraud prosecutions in 2019. Too many victims still receive a poor service and are denied justice.
But it’s not just the investigative response to fraud that needs attention. With so few prosecutions, we need to know how well the overwhelming majority of fraud victims – who will not get a criminal justice outcome – are being supported.
With no clear victim support pathway, victims often do not know who to turn to when seeking advice or support. My inbox bears testimony to this: I receive scores of letters and emails from victims of fraud. Most receive little to no victim care. But with such vast numbers of fraud victims each year, how do we ensure we target limited resources strategically and effectively?
My office has mapped out the landscape of fraud victimisation. It is the first time this has been done so comprehensively and we wanted to understand how we might break down the population of fraud victims into meaningful groups and understand what characterises those groups: who suffers from fraud and what is the impact of their being defrauded?
Published today (13 October), my report is the first to cover both the minority who report to the police or Action Fraud (as little as 15%) and the vast majority who do not. Its findings suggest which types of victim criminal justice agencies and support services may need to prioritise.
Some of the findings were stark. The analysis found that almost a quarter (22%) of all fraud victims – around 700,000 people a year – are likely to be deeply affected. They may experience very high levels of financial loss, severe emotional strain, including suffering from anxiety or depression and suffer relationship difficulties as a result of their being defrauded.
But the research also helps us understand that fraud victims are not a monolith. Even though the number of fraud victims is huge, over half of fraud victims – around 1.74 million people – are likely to say the crime had little to no impact on them.
So, there is certainly scope for us to target resources far more efficiently and effectively to ensure the most vulnerable victims are adequately supported.
But I must stress that we found there is no typical victim of fraud. Anyone can be a victim. Fraud affects anyone and everyone, irrespective of age, income, or gender.
The fraud victims we found were diverse: one group included a high proportion of elderly people living alone who we might think of as classically vulnerable, but another group consisted of younger victims, two-thirds of whom lived in rented accommodation and who were likely to be multiple victims (of fraud or other crimes) and live in relatively deprived areas.
With a problem of this scale, one that impacts so very many of us, we cannot just confine our work to considering post-incident support. Rather, we must prioritise prevention.
In its Beating Crime Plan, the government promised to make changes to Action Fraud, the central hub for reporting fraud incidents, with an improved national fraud and cybercrime reporting system. And it promises better support for victims of fraud by expanding the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit, which looks after vulnerable victims.
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.
The government’s fraud action plan is expected later this year. As my research shows, it 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.
An earlier version of this comment piece (and in the Telegraph), stated that the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit, which looks after vulnerable victims, was available in only five police forces. This is an outdated figure. This is now in 20 police forces and covers 52% of all fraud reported to Action Fraud. We apologise for the error.