Meet the Sussex PC whose drive, Operation Signature, helps prevent thousands of fraud victims from being conned out of millions of pounds

In 2019, fraud is set to be Britain’s fastest-growing crime, much of it, targeting vulnerable and elderly people.

Op Signature is Sussex Police’s hugely successful campaign to identify and reduce phone and internet fraud. It’s the brainchild of PC Bernadette Lawrie BEM who created and developed an initiative which has now been rolled out by 25 police forces.

It all began in 2010, when Bernie visited pensioner Tom Beckett, 94. A post office employee alerted her after spotting that Tom was visiting the branch most days, sending money abroad to claim a lottery prize. Investigations soon discovered that Tom was bombarded with up to 20 calls a day and 150 scam letters per week.

Web of lies

Trapped in a web of lies, Tom was tricked into sending money. Bernie talks through the logistics of how she protected Tom by changing his phone number, redirecting mail and blocking him from sending money overseas.

“In just two hours, I changed Tom’s quality of life,” says Bernie. “But Tom was devastated. It hit him hard because he’d not just invested money but also so much belief. Tom thought he’d won millions but instead lost his life savings.

So why do people fall for deception? “You’d be amazed,” says Bernie. “There’s always a stereotype that fraud victims are stupid, but it’s the opposite. We see rich, well-educated professionals losing huge sums.”

Typically, conmen build a rapport and convince victims with endless excuses why their cheque is held up. It was easy to protect Tom, but a fresh challenge lay in stopping him from becoming a repeat victim.”

Bernie rang Tom’s son, Chris, suggested power of attorney, and gained consent for mail redirection. Hugely supportive, Chris reported the fraud to Sussex police three years earlier, when his father lost £10,000. But back then, attitudes were such, Sussex police didn’t recognise fraud as a crime if a victim sent money of their own accord, so Tom went on to lose a total of £100k.

Wake-up call

Tom’s case served as a wake-up call about the scale of fraud in Sussex, and triggered Op Signature.

“It started my mission to change the mindset that fraud is a serious crime,” says Bernie. “Even if someone is sat at home, appearing to willingly send money here, there and everywhere, they’re a victim.”

Over the next three years, Signature evolved into a process aimed at recognising and stopping fraud in its tracks. In 2013, the Met Police seized a “Suckers List”, containing 100,000 names and addresses to send scam mails.

Scrutinising the data, Bernie tried to identify what was going on in Sussex, and her team knocked on doors of 300 target victims in the Arun District. The majority were aged 80-90 and living alone.

“Most significantly, we discovered victims of scam mail as well as doorstep, phone and cyber fraud, who didn’t even know they were victims.” When they produced their ground-breaking results to police chiefs, their immediate reaction was to warn all potential victims – 1,536 in total – in Sussex and police visited every home.

The saddest scams are those involving romance because they’re breaking hearts as well as fleecing money.

Typically, fraudsters contact someone on a dating site using stolen photos from other profiles. They gain trust saying they’re widowed, divorced or bereaved and looking for love. Then they use a variety of sob stories, e.g., a sick child to make victims part with their money.

Over time, victims end up broke because they take out loans or remortgage their home with no idea it’s about to end.

“They’ve done it as a stake in their future expecting to live happy-ever-after,” says Bernie. “When I break the news that £89,000 is never coming back, and the person they’re in love with, who they pinned all their hopes and dreams on, is in fact, a criminal with a false identity they feel shame and embarrassment.”

Fraud landscape

Certainly, the fraud landscape has changed dramatically within a short space of time. Investment fraud and romance fraud rack up the highest losses, the former, tricking victims in to handing over money for non-existent schemes.

Usually romance fraud slips under the radar longer, while courier and web fraud tend to involve lower losses because they get spotted sooner.

“Victims are being groomed,” says Bernie. “You get cold-called out of the blue and lose money. But if there’s no intervention they carry on, because if a fraudster’s hooked you, they won’t willingly give you up.

An old lady may be living with dementia with no family, and the only man who knows is a rogue builder who keeps coming back for more cheques.”

So, how powerful are fraudsters? “Hugely. It’s organised crime, fraudsters are the most devious criminals with access to technology far outweighing some of our own.”

It is chilling to hear how with just a few clicks of a mouse, a fraudster can hack your emails and view what you’re looking at, as if they’re right beside you.

Criminals often ring claiming to be from Microsoft and ask if you’re experiencing any IT problems. They use technology to access your banking page and move your savings straight into their current account.

“Money bounces through 20 bank accounts in half a day, so all you’re doing is chasing money that’s gone,” says Bernie.

Asked if fraud victims are also enablers, Bernie is only full of empathy. “A ‘scam’ suggests a cheeky trickster, but I see fraud victims crushed and their confidence drained. They suffer anxiety, depression and even feel suicidal.

“Family members are powerless, and in crude terms, adult children find it hard to sit by and watch their inheritance go down the pan,” she adds. “And seeing your nearest and dearest brainwashed and fleeced is never easy.”

Repeat victimisation

Op Signature has been a towering success. Sussex Police has a process for treating victims of all fraud as crime victims, and takes preventative steps to safeguard them from further targeting. They include; changing their phone number, installing call blocking devices and referring them to other agencies.

Bernie also provides training to police recruits and call handlers, and spreads the word in the community, via newsletters, leaflets and social media. Bernie’s work was praised by the National Police Chiefs Council and recommended as best practice for forces nationwide.

“What’s unique is the pattern of repeat victimization, says Bernie.

“You’d be unlucky to get your car stolen twice, but fraud is the opposite. Rogue traders aren’t just guilty of one offence, they’re doing the circuit.”

She welcomes the Banking Protocol, a national process between banks, police and the post office. Banks train staff to spot if someone is about to fall victim to a scam, and if anything doesn’t add up, they phone 999.

“For us, it’s perfect,” says Bernie. “We take the victim home and run through our whole Op Signature checks to detect vulnerability. To date, we’ve made 48 arrests and saved almost £5m.”

For fraud victims in Sussex, the average scam costs £23,000. But what’s striking is that they don’t know they’re victims until it’s too late.

Having set up Britain’s first police system to improve how fraud victims are protected, Bernie is keen to share her wisdom with agencies involved in caring for them.

“If you spot the phone ringing a lot, or a mountain of receipts, tell us,” she says. “Fraud happens behind closed doors. It doesn’t matter how many police are on the streets – you won’t spot it. It’s not easy getting people talking about their money or romance, which makes it so hard to identify.

“One thing’s for certain, the success and impact of Op Signature makes it essential why every police force needs to adopt a similar process.

There’s no reason why victims in Sussex can be afforded protection but victims in other parts of the country miss out, because victims suffer exactly the same.”

This article is in the July issue of VC News.