Action Fraud to be replaced

The UK’s fight against scammers to be beefed up.

In July 2021 the government published its “Beating Crime” plan. There, in black and white on page 42, is the acknowledgement that fraud and cybercrime now account for over 50% of all crime and costs the UK at least £4.7bn a year. Fraud hurts individuals and damages the health of the whole economy. It has increased during the pandemic and threatens the speed of our recovery from it.

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As the Beating Crime plan says, we need to “ensure that law enforcement has the skills and ability to catch and bring to justice those who seek to defraud… UK citizens and businesses”.

Since 2019 the government has spent £25m funding Action Fraud to tackle fraud, support its victims and improve the skills within the police to address it.  It also funded the Active Fraud Defence unit within the National Cyber Security, which has shut down over 50,000 scams and taken down almost 100,000 websites since it was founded last year.

The report goes on: “We will improve our understanding of how fraudsters are operating. We will replace Action Fraud with an improved national fraud and cybercrime reporting system and increase intelligence capabilities in the National Crime Agency and the national security community to identify the most harmful criminals and organised criminal gangs”.

 

IPS View

IPS members want to see action to fight back against scammers who get more confident and brazen each day.  Finally, the government seems to accept the size of the problem and the urgent need for bold action.  This is a positive message.  They inspire further hope with two more statements:

  1. “We will take fraudsters off the streets and increase arrests and prosecutions”.
  2. “We will provide better support for the victims of fraud”.

Nice sentiments.

But when will it happen and how quickly can they turn this around?

The problem with Action Fraud

Action Fraud’s current role is as the UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre. Much publicity has directed citizens to log their cases with Action Fraud to capture this rising tide of online crime. Their effectiveness has been called into question since an undercover investigation by The Times back in 2019. The reporter discovered an amateurish approach to handing complaints where victims were systematically misled by call handlers who were trained to assure them that their report would be investigated, knowing full well that – below a threshold of financial loss – the incident would not be looked at and was put straight in the metaphorical bin.

Many victims felt that the crime reference number they got at the end of their complaint call was the last they ever heard about it – and repeated follow-up calls revealed no further information on what had happened to their case.

Some of the treatment of incoming reports from vulnerable victims was shown to be heartless in the undercover video.

The central theme of The Times’ story was that the outsourced provider running Action Fraud’s operations and call centre, a US company called Concentrix, had effectively ‘given up’ on running a helpful service and only actually acted on larger frauds.  Only 1 in 50 reported frauds led to anyone being caught, and all this was set against the fact that only 1 in 200 police officers are assigned to fraud investigations.  The backlash from that report generated the impetus for further assessment that has resulted in the strategy the government set out in the Beating Crime plan.

A review commissioned by the Home Office into Action Fraud’s performance concluded that fraudsters in the UK operated with ‘impunity’ and ‘radical change’ was needed to regain ground lost to criminals.

What is the new plan?

The Beating Crime plan doesn’t go into a lot of detail of what life beyond Action Fraud will look like. The ‘improved national fraud and cybercrime reporting system’ may well be run by an outside contractor (and if so, we hope it will not be Concentrix as that wouldn’t send the right message to an expectant public).

We worry that the wording of the report focuses too much on the serious and complex frauds, which are of course important.  We are not yet reassured that smaller, everyday fraud experiences (which really add up when lived by tens of thousands of people) are going to be handled with the right level of sensitivity and intelligence.  UK citizens want to be listened to and feel that their complaint is being acted upon, even if that means they are told their call becomes an important part of a data set that identifies patterns of criminal behaviour that leads to scams being stopped, and criminals being prosecuted.

Currently Action Fraud AND the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau stand accused of letting too many cases go unanswered or fall through the gaps as ‘not enough money was lost, or hardship endured’.  We want a comprehensive approach where ALL complaints are logged, listened to and tracked.  If this is 50% of the crime in Britain, then surely that is not an unreasonable ask of our leaders.  The Conservative manifesto featured a commitment to create a ‘new national cybercrime force focused on fraud’.  How many dedicated police officers will we get to fight these crimes on our behalf?

Better use of technology needed

It is plain to all that technology plays a huge role in tracking online fraud, highlighting data patterns and providing insights that allow law enforcement to get ahead of the scammers.

The City of London police will continue to oversee fraud policing but will be changing its model for procurement in support of this new strategy.  The current setup was procured in 2015 and the world has moved on at speed since then.  Technology has improved, scammers have grown more adept and adaptable at using it – and the demand for anti-fraud capacity has increased significantly.

A City of London Police spokesperson told the International Adviser:

“The City of London Police, as national lead force for fraud, continue to strive to improve the victim experience… reduce harm and prevent fraud.  In support of this, and to benefit from new available technologies which can help us cope with increased demand, work is already well-underway to create a new and improved system for reporting fraud and analysing those reports.  Our contract with IBM, who currently provide the system used by Action Fraud, the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre, and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB), expires in 2022.  The system we need must be designed and procured carefully…  We are speaking to a number of different companies who believe they have the best solution for what we require.”

IPS Summary

Quite simply the UK needs our anti-fraud technology to be ahead of the criminals’ technology and that is what this plan points towards.  We are encouraged by this report but, want to see it acted on and implemented as soon as possible.
If it is now official that over half the crime in the UK is fraud, then these essential enhancements, the beefing up of our national defences, can’t come soon enough.

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