Real lives, real crimes: A study of digital crime and policing

Chapter 3. What did the victims think?

3.1. We have put the victim at the centre of our study into digital crime. Every victim suffers the consequences of the offender’s behaviour and the specific cases in this report provide a powerful testimony to the distress and disruption that digital crime can cause to those who suffer as a result of it.

3.2. Based on our discussions with victims of digital crime, we set out in this chapter the common themes that emerged from the victims’ contact with the police service.

3.3. We spoke to eight victims who generously provided very detailed descriptions of their experiences of being victims of digital crime. We did this to help us better to understand how the police service should respond effectively to their needs. However, we recognise immediately that our sample size of victims of digital crimes is not large enough to draw statistically valid conclusions.

Are people aware of the threat of digital crime?

3.4. Although, for the most part, victims of crime are aware of what has happened to them when the crime is committed in a tangible way (such as an assault or a burglary where the victim is able to see the consequences of the offender’s actions), the picture is different when the crime is a digital crime.

3.5. The victims with whom we spoke were broadly unaware of the threat that digital crime posed to them. They were generally unaware too of the prevalence of such crimes and, on occasion, they were uncertain about the specific offence which had been committed.

3.6. This uncertainty meant that victims were not able to take steps to prevent the crime or its repetition, and many were unsure about what action they should take in response to what was happening to them. This included whether they should contact the police.

3.7. Victims reported to us that, where they took action to report what had occurred to the police in terms of a specific offence, the response that they received was positive.

3.8. However, where the victim was uncertain about whether what had happened to them amounted to a crime, the response that they received from the police was not satisfactory.

“The police asked me what the crime was. I think it’s theft, fraud – I don’t really know. Deception?… My frustrations were not so much with the time they took to send someone out to me, as I know they are busy, but with the lack of understanding of what the crime was from every officer I came into contact with.” Paul – online auction site fraud victim

3.9. In some instances, we were told that the victim had to wait several days before a police officer visited because his or her case was not considered important. Some victims were passed immediately to Action Fraud, regardless of whether that was the appropriate course of action. And other victims commented on what they considered to be a lack of police action once the crime had been reported.

3.10. While we understand that the police’s response must be determined in part by the clarity with which a victim conveys his or her account in the first instance, it cannot be right for the victim to have to tell the police the specific offence which has been committed. It is the police’s job to identify any criminality from the victim’s account and act accordingly.

3.11. In one force, we were told that a police call handler has just seven minutes to assess a caller’s account of what has happened and provide an appropriate response. When victims are upset, confused or frightened, such rigidity is not conducive to providing an appropriately tailored response or giving the victim confidence that he or she is believed and is being taken seriously.

3.12. Better understanding the needs of the victim would improve the police response and reduce the number of negative experiences about which victims told us.
Do the police provide adequate support and advice to victims?

3.13. We found a mixed picture about the extent to which the police provided good quality advice to victims of digital crime. Although the picture was not uniform, the following is an example of the positive reaction that good policing secures from a victim of digital crime.

“I was reassured by the police that the suspect’s reach went only as far as Facebook. They gave good advice, like asking me if there was anyone in my network that I could ask further IT advice from.” Daniel – blackmail victim

3.14. And victims identified areas where they would like to see a greater police presence to help to thwart would-be offenders.

“It would have been good to have some police presence on chat room sites, in the way that they may drop by a pub in the evening if there had been problems there.” Judith – stalking victim

3.15. We were also provided with examples where good quality advice and guidance was not provided.

“They told me to change my phone number to stop receiving the [stalking] texts, but why should I? It’s my phone. In the end, I worked out how to make sure all messages coming from his number went into a special folder so I wouldn’t see them.” Judith –stalking victim

3.16. We consider such advice to be wrong in principle and dangerous in practice as it might have led to the loss of evidence which could be later used to support a prosecution against the offender.

3.17. In several cases, the victim’s perception of an investigating officer’s competence was not directly related to the depth of the officer’s knowledge of digital crime. Instead, it was based on the officer’s ability to provide thoughtful advice and practical guidance about what the victim could do to protect him or herself from any further criminality.

Why do victims of digital crime delay in contacting the police?

3.18. Not one of the victims with whom we spoke contacted the police immediately after the crime was committed. Such consistency caused us to explore this issue further and three main reasons were given. We consider each in the paragraphs that follow.

Embarrassment

3.19. Broadly, this emotion broke down into two distinct parts: first, the victim’s perception that he or she was doing something which others might think of as inappropriate; and, secondly, the idea that the victim had contributed to the crime because of the actions which he or she took.

“I felt embarrassed and silly. People do form relationships online, but I realise that not everyone will get it.” Judith – stalking victim

3.20. This reaction is entirely understandable. In our view, what will help victims to overcome them is having the confidence that the police officer to whom they recount what has occurred will treat them with dignity and respect and without casting judgment.

“I can sort this out myself”

3.21. Many digital crimes occur as a result of the victim voluntarily using modern technology. Many victims will have been using the greater freedom provided by technology to set up online accounts, to manage their personal and business affairs and to conduct their social lives, either wholly or partly online. They may well have used modern technology successfully for many years and consider themselves to be adept at understanding and controlling it. And undoubtedly they will have encountered technical difficulties in using the technology and overcome these themselves.

3.22. It is not surprising, therefore, that many victims consider their first encounter with digital crime as something that they should seek to overcome themselves – after all, they will have had the experience of addressing successfully non-criminal difficulties in the past.

3.23. Again, while entirely understandable, it is important for those who are victims of digital crime to appreciate that they are exactly that – victims of crime. And the prompt reporting of what has happened may help the police to secure a positive outcome for the victim.

Perception of police skills

3.24. There remains a perception among digital crime victims that the police are not well-equipped to deal with what has happened to them. The police are seen as responsible for investigating crimes that have a physical manifestation, such as an assault or a burglary. Victims do not yet see the police as the first port of call when they suffer a digital crime.

3.25. Victims reported to us that they often contacted the police only after their attempts to rectify the position had failed, or when they felt out of their depth in dealing with what had occurred. For some, notifying the police was a plea for reassurance and protection.

3.26. Interestingly, we found that in cases of online fraud, victims tended to contact their bank rather than the police.

3.27. Raising public awareness that the police service takes digital crime seriously and will investigate it competently lies at the heart of ensuring that victims contact the police in a timely fashion.

Is there consistency of approach?

3.28. Digital crime is not confined by geographical boundaries within which police forces operate. Unlike an assault or a burglary, for example, where the location of either can be clearly identified and a police force charged with investigating it, digital crime may cross police force boundaries, locally, nationally and internationally.

3.29. In such instances, a common and consistent approach must be adopted.

3.30. We identified a number of cases where two different police forces were involved in the same investigation. In one, a victim of online harassment received conflicting information from the police about what she could do to stop further harassment. In another, a victim of online marketplace fraud was told by an officer from each of two forces that the other force would investigate – although neither did.

3.31. We also found a difference in approach between police forces. While we recognise that police officers should not be straitjacketed in the response that they provide, it cannot be right that an officer’s response was the following:

“[t]he police told me that it wouldn’t be ‘crimed’ as if they dealt with all cyber [sic] crime it would be all that they did! This made me feel angry. I see police deal with cases with far less value. I see these cases being hauled through the court.” Paul – online auction site fraud victim

3.32. Such a response is never acceptable.

Do the police recognise the impact of digital crime?

3.33. In cases where the police recognised the emotional upset to the victim which the digital crime had caused, we were told that sensitive and appropriate reassurance and support were provided. Reassurance is often the response which victims are seeking. Where it was given, the victim’s experience of the police was positive.

3.34. We found examples of digital crimes where victims welcomed the sensitivity and understanding of the officers concerned, and they judged their interaction with the police as positive as a result.

“I was completely overwhelmed, in total shock. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I panicked and transferred the cash without thinking. I was embarrassed. It was so stupid. As soon as the police arrived, they said they had heard of similar cases, which made me feel that I’m not the only idiot” Daniel – blackmail victim

“The police officer was great, really empathetic and I felt as if she was on my side and taking the matter seriously. She said she wasn’t just going to call, but visit him, so she could suss him out face-to-face.” Judith – stalking victim

3.35. However, the experience was not universal.

“The police response was that I shouldn’t have posted the phone. I know what I did was stupid, but that wasn’t helpful.” Paul – online auction site fraud victim

3.36. Generally, our case studies suggest that police officers appear to have difficulty in empathising with the victim’s situation – possibly because of their lack of awareness and understanding of the digital lives that some people lead. Recognition of the victim’s vulnerability and the support that he or she needed tended to be based on individual officers’ personal judgment.

3.37. This is a different approach to more traditional crime, where Victim Support is offered as a matter of course. Only one of the eight victims with whom we spoke had been offered the services of Victim Support in the first instance.

3.38. Dealing with any victim of crime in an understanding and respectful way is the daily bread and butter of a police officer’s working life. The fact that the crime was a digital crime should not make any difference to the officer’s approach.

Do the police recognise and collect evidence of digital crime?

3.39. Many victims mentioned that they had carefully collected the evidence of the digital crime but that the investigating officer had not taken it, when offered.

“I found the branch where my money had been sent and offered to give it to the police to stop it happening to someone else. The police told me to contact Action Fraud. When I contacted Action Fraud they didn’t take it from me but told me to leave the matter to them. I never heard anything else from Action Fraud or the police.”
Jane – ‘romance fraud’ victim

3.40. When this was put to police officers, it transpired that there was a lack of understanding about what to do with such material.

“Do you print off the Facebook page, write it down, or ask the victim to save it for later?” Police officer

3.41. Better awareness of what to do when investigating digital crime is essential, both to preserve the integrity of any evidence available and to instil confidence in the victim that the crime will be properly investigated.

Do the police keep the victim informed of progress?

3.42. Once a victim has summoned up the courage to report a digital crime, it is essential that he or she is updated about the progress of the investigation. Many victims mentioned that they were not kept so informed and some reported that they were not even told when the investigation had been closed.

“The police never told me if this will go down on the thief’s record. It would have been nice to know.” Warren – theft of smartphone

“I’m really disappointed that I haven’t heard anything back on the case. I feel like there’s no progress and two years have gone by. If there is insufficient evidence for the case and they’re not going to take it up, I’d just like to get feedback on that.” Simon – ‘boiler room’ fraud victim

3.43. And even when contact was maintained, we were told of one instance where the investigating force wrote to the victim in a tone which was inappropriate.

“I received a letter from the investigating police force saying that they had assessed the case. It said that fraud investigation was resource intensive and they were not taking it further. It said my case might be passed on to Action Fraud. The letter was so generic. It felt like a circular. There was no reference to my circumstances, no signature, no reference to previous correspondence. My hopes had been so high; then they were dashed. I felt more upset than I did after the crime itself.” Jane – ‘romance fraud’ victim

3.44. The goodwill of victims towards police, and their trust in them, will be lost easily and quickly if they are not told what is happening in their case, and in a polite and appropriate way.

What do young people think?

3.45. We have set out in paragraph 1.7 the fact that the use of the internet and modern technology is commonplace among those aged up to 25 years – and undoubtedly for many over that age as well. They are the everyday means by which social communication is maintained and young people regard their use as part of their everyday lives.

3.46. Because of this, we spoke with representatives of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. They conducted an online discussion with young people aged between 13 and 20 to find out their experiences of dealing with the police in the context of any difficulties which they encountered online. They also took the opportunity to invite the audience to comment on what the police service could do better when providing its response.

3.47. Although not based on case studies that we undertook, we consider it helpful to set out the comments which were made to representatives of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to complete the picture of the victims’ experience.

“Young people would not go to the police about online issues, because the police just say to them block the person who is bullying and everything will be okay. When the actual case is that bullies won’t stop, because they’re blocked; they will find other ways to get to the victims online.”

“I think the police need to make young people feel like they can contact the police – not like they are wasting police time or like their issues are trivial.”

“I want the police to be approachable and actually do something about it, rather than be unreliable.”

“Maybe a way of making young people report an issue and have the confidence is if the police actually make the effort to reach out to younger people and raise more awareness. Make young people feel supported and that they’ve ‘got our backs’.”

“I would like the police to be more understanding, follow-up on things and not to ignore the issue.”

“Online issues don’t get taken seriously. The police literally treat it like it’s virtual.”

3.48. It is clear from these typical comments that the police service has some way to go to secure the confidence of the upcoming generation in the area of digital crime.

How does the police response compare between digital and non-digital crime?

3.49. Throughout this report, we have provided case studies involving some who have been the victims of digital crime. We have included a case study of a victim of attempted burglary between chapters 9 and 10, for comparative purposes.

3.50. Although generalised conclusions cannot be drawn from this limited number of accounts, the contrast between their experiences could not be more stark.

3.51. In the case of the victim of attempted burglary, he knew of the precautions that he should take to protect his home and property in the first instance; he knew that a crime had been committed when the offenders sought to burgle his home; he knew that his first port of call to report the incident should be the police; and he did so immediately.

3.52. Not for him was there uncertainty about what had happened, what he should do or what others might think.

3.53. In turn, the police response to a more familiar crime was markedly different from that provided to victims of digital crime. The police provided advice about how to prevent a further burglary attempt on two different occasions within 24 hours of the first attempt. The victim was visited by two community support officers after the immediate response officer had attended.

3.54. The police offered the victim the services of Victim Support on two occasions.

3.55. And so, we have two crimes, two different approaches by the victims and two different responses by the police. If the position is replicated across more crimes, it is clear that there is some way to go before the victims of digital crime can be assured that they will receive the same response from the police as victims of more familiar crimes.

Conclusion

3.56. There is nothing to suggest that the experiences of victims of digital crime which we have included throughout this report are not representative of what happens to a substantial proportion of victims of such crimes. However, as we have said at the beginning of this chapter we recognise immediately that our sample size of victims of digital crimes is not large enough to draw statistically valid conclusions. Nonetheless, we consider that their experiences are sufficient to identify those areas of police work that need attention. We consider these to be:

  1. showing that the police service takes digital crime and its impact seriously;
  2. better tailored support and advice to victims of digital crime;
  3. better awareness of how to investigate digital crime and the evidence required to support such an investigation;
  4. a more consistent and co-ordinated response by the police within and across force boundaries; and
  5. keeping the victim of digital crime better informed of progress in the investigation.

3.57. We leave the last words of this chapter to a victim of digital crime whose eloquence in conveying her thoughts does not warrant any further explanation.

“As a result of my experience, I felt violated, both emotionally as well as financially. After it happened, it occurred to me that, had I been robbed/burgled in the accepted sense, I would have been visited and questioned by someone.

“Because it was over the internet, with no hard evidence/finger prints, etc., my complaint was as invisible as the person who had stolen from me – more so because the hard evidence I did have was of no interest to anyone.

“Ultimately I think I have been left realising what I already acknowledged, namely that the emotional damage is as important, if not more so, than the financial. That is what the police need to recognise. I lost some money but emotionally the scars are a lot deeper.” Jane – ‘romance fraud’ victim


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Read Chapter 4: Do the police know the scale of digital crime and how do they respond?


Jane's story: Romance fraud victim - part one


Jane's story: Romance fraud victim - part two