Fraud set to be upgraded as a threat to national security

Fraud cyber crime financial crime victims prevention - Boonchai Wedmakawand/Moment RF
Fraud cyber crime financial crime victims prevention - Boonchai Wedmakawand/Moment RF

Fraud is to be reclassified as a threat to national security under government plans that will force police chiefs to devote more officers to solving the crime.

It will be elevated to the same status as terrorism, with chief constables mandated to increase resources and combine capabilities in a new effort to combat a fraud epidemic that now accounts for 30 per cent of all crime.

It will be added to the strategic policing requirement, which means that forces will be required by ministers to treat fraud as a major priority alongside not only terrorism, but also public disorder, civil emergencies, serious and organised crime, cyber attacks and child sexual abuse.

The move came as the Government prepares to unveil its new fraud strategy this month following savage criticism of the police for ignoring its impact on victims.

Calls for a swift response

Just one in 1,000 offences are solved, with constabularies devoting fewer than 2,000 officers, 0.8 per cent of the workforce, to investigating it in 2021.

The task of revamping the police response has been handed to Nik Adams, the commander co-ordinating economic and cyber crime at the City of London Police, the lead force for fraud in England and Wales.

In an interview with The Telegraph, he highlighted the devastating impact of the crime, citing data which show that fraud put the lives of at least 300 people a year at risk.

“This is a staggering figure,” he said. “The details of 300 people a year are passed urgently to their local police force to institute a sort of equivalent to a 999 safeguarding response because somebody is at such crisis point, they’re potentially a risk of suicide and self-harm, as a result of that criminality.”

Possible revamp of Action Fraud

A central part of the revamp will be an overhaul of Action Fraud, the much-criticised body based at City of London Police. Ministers and policing chiefs are still debating whether its reputation is so battered that it needs to be renamed.

Commander Adams admitted that the current technology “doesn’t do what we want it to do”, with too much intelligence analysis of complex scams still done manually and taking longer than officers wanted.

As part of a £30 million government cash injection, a new artificial intelligence computer system is being built to act as a “super brain” to analyse and “join the dots” on all fraud in the UK to identify the criminals behind it. It is expected to be launched next year.

Commander Adams said: “There is huge investment going into a new action fraud system to take on board calls and crimes. An immense investment into the analytical capability that sits behind that and an immense investment into the victim care service that has been built over a number of years now.”

He said that fraud scams were now so sophisticated and global that a victim could, for example, believe they were being conned by a US soldier, when in fact it was a criminal acting out of Ghana.

“We hope the technology will be better at scraping all that digital information to join the dots, recognise patterns and therefore prioritise certain investigations in a more streamlined, effective way in future,” he said.

‘Economic crime teams’ set up

All fraud will be reported to Action Fraud or its rebranded version, which will help determine whether it is so big and serious that the investigation should be led by the National Crime Agency, new reinforced regional police teams or local forces.

Ten regional fraud squads, known as “economic crime teams”, have been set up with 96 of the 118 officers recruited so far. They replicate the structure of the 10 regional organised crime units.

“We’ll get the most serious and complex cases managed at a regional level, whilst also doing all of that work to support local police force economic crime teams to make sure that they’re equipped and capable of delivering local investigations,” said Commander Adams.

He said that already, even with the current system, 90 per cent of all fraud investigations were completed within two years, cutting the time victims had to wait for justice from “five, seven, 10 years”.

Commander Adams said that improved banking technology now spotted 65 per cent of unauthorised payment scams, but this had led to an “exponential” rise in more sophisticated grooming frauds.

This saw criminals harvesting personal data over weeks or months, which provided them with the “perceived legitimacy” to inveigle their way into people’s lives.

“Our effort needs to be in dismantling those sorts of elaborate operations and investing immense amounts in the sorts of campaigns to raise awareness of victims about how that manipulation might manifest itself,” he said.

Criminals diversifying into fraud

Commander Adams added that criminals were increasingly diversifying into fraud because of higher risks from traditional crimes such as burglary.

“Why would you now, as a criminal, go out at four o’clock in the morning and try and break into somebody’s house whilst they’re sleeping, with all of the forensic risks and opportunities and the minimal gain that you get from each individual crime?

“Why would you engage in that sort of activity when you can go onto a web platform and buy a tool that allows you to send out hundreds of phishing text messages to people?

“You only need a few people to respond to those through that technology in order to give you the opportunities to make a significant amount of money.”