Real lives, real crimes: A study of digital crime and policing
Chapter 9. How do forces, Action Fraud, and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau work together?
What are the current arrangements?
9.1. With the volume of personal details now stored online, with the ability for another to obtain them and for that person then to remain unseen online, it is little wonder that fraud has become a growth industry in terms of digital crime.
9.2. Fraud, in all its guises, is one of the principal offences which does not respect police force boundaries, either within the United Kingdom or internationally.
9.3. As a result, it became clear that a national perspective needed to be adopted to reflect the ways in which fraud can be committed.
9.4. In 2006, structures were created which were designed to provide a more co-ordinated and nationally consistent response to fraud. The City of London Police became the national lead force for fraud with responsibility for the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and the Home Office created the National Fraud Reporting Centre.
9.5. In 2009, the National Fraud Reporting Centre was renamed Action Fraud and, in 2014, it came under the control of the City of London Police.
9.6. Action Fraud provides the central point of contact for the reporting of fraud and online crime. It receives crime reports and information reports in one of four ways:
- directly from members of the public over the telephone;
- directly from members of the public via an online reporting process;
- directly from police forces, or other law enforcement agencies on behalf of victims; and
- directly from businesses using an online bulk reporting tool.
9.7. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau processes the information received by Action Fraud. Following analysis, the bureau provides the police and other law enforcement agencies with:
- victim profiles – these contain the details of all victims of crime and the type of crime to which they have been subjected. A monthly schedule of this information is forwarded to the police force which serves the address provided by the victim of the reported crime;
- force profiles – these provide statistical analysis of crime trends, crime types and emerging crime techniques used by offenders within force areas; and
- monthly threat updates – these support a national profiling of current and emerging fraud.
individual crime packages – these identify viable opportunities to undertake a criminal investigation or take disruptive action;
9.8. Neither Action Fraud nor the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau is responsible for the investigation of offences. That duty remains with the local police force or other appropriate law enforcement agency.
9.9. Action Fraud receives on average 25,000 reported crimes and a further 12,000 information reports per month. (An information report is a report from a member of the public or from a business which, according to the way in which crimes are recorded, falls short of being classified as a crime but which nonetheless alleges fraudulent activity. Such a report may still be used for intelligence purposes by the police.) This creates a significant amount of information that requires a database for it to be analysed. The database used by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau is the ‘Know Fraud’ system. This system is used to identify links and patterns in offending.
9.10. A case in which there are so-called ‘solvability factors’ is highlighted and passed to a team within the bureau so that it may establish whether there is a realistic prospect of identifying the offender through a bank account, postal address, internet address or telephone number. Where this is the case, and the bureau considers that there are viable lines of enquiry to pursue the offender (for example, because he or she is thought to be within the jurisdiction), the matter is referred to the relevant police force or other law enforcement agency to pursue.
9.11. Cases in which there are no such factors or where there are no viable lines of enquiry remain on the ‘Know Fraud’ database for further analysis.
How is the victim kept in touch?
9.12. Upon reporting a crime, the victim receives an automatically generated letter. The letter provides a specific crime reference number and an explanation of the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau process. The letter also states that the victim will be provided with an update by letter within 28 days.
9.13. Depending on the analysis undertaken by the bureau concerning the solvability factors and viable lines of enquiry in the case, the follow-up letter will state one of two conclusions; either that no further action will be taken at that time, and that the victim’s details will remain on the database, or that solvability factors and viable lines of enquiry have been identified and that the case has been forwarded to a specific police force or law enforcement agency for further action.
9.14. Contrary to the usual position, the local force or agency to which such a crime will be forwarded is the force or agency where the viable lines of enquiry arise. This may not necessarily be the force or agency where the crime was committed or where the victim lives.
9.15. In order to ensure that the victim’s local force is aware that a crime has been committed in its area, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau provides each force with the details of every victim who resides within its area, on a monthly basis. These details include those victims whose cases remain on the ‘Know Fraud’ database because they do not have any solvability factors.
How well understood are Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau?
9.16. During our study, we found very few police officers and staff who understood either their own roles and responsibilities or those of their force in relation to the investigation of fraud. In particular there was a lack of knowledge, at all ranks, regarding the functions of Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.
9.17. Consequently, the advice and support which the police should provide to the victims of such crime are poor. For example, on two occasions, in two separate forces, we were told by neighbourhood policing officers that they didn’t understand the process and they would advise victims who reported frauds to call 101.
9.18. Misunderstanding the role of Action Fraud appears to be rife.
9.19. We conducted a group discussion in one force with call handlers and enquiry desk staff who commented that they would:
“refer the victim direct to Action Fraud”;
“deploy a police officer to take a crime report from the victim”;
“transfer the victim to the criminal investigation department”;
“make an appointment for a police community support officer to speak to the victim”; and
“transfer the victim to the force economic crime unit”.
9.20. This clear lack of understanding among many who come into contact with victims about the right procedure to adopt was consistent across most police forces which helped us in our study, both at tactical and strategic levels.
9.21. Yet, all the forces which we visited had a nominated officer, at either detective sergeant or detective inspector level, to receive and manage those cases referred to the force from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. He or she was responsible for the case management of the investigations and was fully aware of the way in which fraud cases should be reported to Action Fraud and of the response that could be expected from the bureau. However, it appeared that these officers did not carry sufficient weight to ensure that the remainder of police officers and staff in their forces were equally well informed.
9.22. When we spoke to chief officers about National Fraud Intelligence Bureau referrals, they invariably directed us to those specialist middle-ranking officers. In all but one force, there was an absence of strategic leadership and direction, which resulted in a lack of performance management and priority setting in relation to the reporting and investigation of fraud.
9.23. The numbers of crimes reported to Action Fraud annually have more than doubled since 2013. Despite this, fewer than 50 percent of forces regularly assess the impact of fraud in their strategic risk assessments. (See: National Fraud Capability Survey”, national police coordinator for economic crime, March 2015, page 10.)
9.24. We are aware that the National Police Co-ordinator for Economic Crime wrote to every chief constable in March 2015 highlighting best practice. In his letter, he stressed that the entire process needed to be “owned by an accountable chief officer”. He asked that every force notify him of its nominated chief officer.
9.25. By August 2015, he had received only 14 responses out of a possible 43.
Do the police correctly recognise the need for an immediate response?
9.26. None of the victims who took part in our study initially contacted Action Fraud to report the crime. His or her first point of contact was the local force, and call handlers across all forces confirmed that they receive calls from victims of fraud on a daily basis. Therefore, the call handler’s role is particularly important in identifying and responding to the needs of the victim.
9.27. We found good examples of staff identifying the need for an immediate police response. However, too often we found that the victim was directed to Action Fraud without a full assessment of the individual case. One detective sergeant with responsibility for the investigation of fraud was particularly frustrated:
“[t]his should be our bread and butter but we get it wrong all the time. We tell people to contact Action Fraud rather than recognise that this is a call for service.”
9.28. Our study’s findings were supported in an earlier HMIC inspection, the report of which was published in November 2014 (Crime-recording: making the victim count, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, November 2014). There, the inspectors witnessed call handlers forwarding telephone calls from victims to Action Fraud, without making any attempt to establish the circumstances of the crime or the vulnerability of the victim.
9.29. Our case study concerning Megan, page 28, further illustrates this point. Megan reported to the police that her computer had been ‘hacked’ and she was immediately transferred to Action Fraud, despite the fact that there were clearly steps that the local force should have taken to remedy the situation. Consequently, when the offending against her continued, Megan did not contact the police again because she had already been advised that it was not a matter for them to investigate.
9.30. Our findings were echoed by the National Police Co-ordinator for Economic Crime following a survey of national fraud capability undertaken in March 2015 (See: National Fraud Capability Survey, national police coordinator for economic crime, March 2015). In his letter to all chief constables, he asked forces to satisfy themselves that:
“[c]alls for service particularly from vulnerable victims receive the most appropriate support at the time they report and these cases are not just referred onto Action Fraud. The appropriate response in such cases is for a local force to take immediate action to prevent ongoing victimisation or financial loss and then to support the victim in reporting to Action Fraud.”
9.31. We agree.
9.32. A further consequence of the failure of forces to respond appropriately is the loss of opportunity to take immediate action.
9.33. Action Fraud has advised us that, between April 2014 and March 2015, the total losses reported to it were approximately £3.5bn. A significant proportion of these monies were transferred initially from the victims’ bank accounts to bank accounts in the United Kingdom. Invariably, these accounts were opened or operated by the offenders. Thereafter, however, the monies were likely to be transferred to other accounts, often within 24 hours of the original fraud.
9.34. This provides a limited window of opportunity for the police to respond in an attempt to prevent the loss of the monies entirely. And the possibility that immediate action might be taken to secure the monies for the victim is often the motivation behind the victim’s call to the police in the first instance.
9.35. We have set out the way in which Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau undertake their work in paragraphs 9.11 to 9.13. The bureau’s analysis of individual crimes takes time. One force crime manager informed us that, in general, a crime reported to Action Fraud would take at least 30 days before it is allocated to an investigator in force.
9.36. This delay presents a substantial opportunity to the offender who has the ability to generate a complex money trail, often involving bank accounts outside the jurisdiction, to salt away the fraudulently-obtained funds.
9.37. To optimise the opportunities for the police to respond effectively, it is essential that calls for service are properly recognised and appropriately handled.
9.38. It is only right that we point out, however, that we did find some examples of individual members of police staff providing excellent service to members of the public.
9.39. Several of these related to ‘courier frauds’. (Courier fraud is committed when the offender attends the address of the victim to collect his or her credit card, following a telephone conversation purporting to come from the credit card company in which it is falsely claimed that the victim’s card has been compromised.) Recognising that these were calls for service, call handlers immediately deployed officers who were able either to prevent credit cards being stolen, or, in some cases, to arrest the offender.
9.40. A police community support officer provided a further good example of swift action. He received information that a member of the public had recently transferred money into a fraudulent bank account. The officer, recognising the urgency of the situation, contacted the bank and was able to prevent the funds being withdrawn.
9.41. These examples of good policing are commendable, but isolated; they should be standard procedure.
Do the police provide appropriate levels of care to victims?
9.42. While it is clear that Action Fraud is responsible for the recording of fraud and cyber-crime, local forces continue to be responsible for protecting their local communities against those who commit crime, and for supporting those who fall victim to it.
9.43. During our study, we found that there is a lack of an effective response to fraud at a local level. One chief officer told us that chief constables considered that they had: “given [fraud] in its entirety to Action Fraud.”
9.44. Our findings are supported by the national fraud capability survey undertaken by the office of the National Police Co-ordinator for Economic Crime which identified that:
“at a strategic level, less than 50 percent of forces assessed the impact of fraud within their force strategic assessments”.
9.45. In the forces which we visited, we found limited awareness of the fraud victim profiles within their communities.
9.46. This is especially disappointing given that the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau provides forces, on a monthly basis, with details of all victims of fraud and cyber-dependent crime in their force areas. We found that few were aware that these data either existed or, if they were aware, they did not use them for any beneficial purpose.
9.47. We have concerns, too, that the fact that the fraud is committed online remains a factor which distinguishes the level of police response from that provided in respect of other crimes.
9.48. In our case study concerning Simon who was the victim of a ‘boiler room’ fraud to the value of £60,000. He disclosed that he did not have any contact whatsoever from his local force. A ‘boiler room’ fraud usually involves bogus stockbrokers, cold calling people to pressure them into buying shares that promise high returns. In reality the shares are either worthless or non-existent. (See the Action Fraud website)
9.49. In another case, another victim of fraud told us that he had lost £18,000 but that there had not been any follow-up action by his local force.
“It was a really disappointing and upsetting outcome. We thought this would have been easy to solve. We had all the evidence and the police never came around to see us.”
9.50. Yet, in the case of an attempted burglary, one victim described that within 72 hours of reporting the attempt, he had received visits from a response officer, crime scene investigators and police community support officers.
9.51. This disparity in approach is difficult to reconcile without reflecting on the manner in which the two crimes were perpetrated. The response is all the more concerning, given that Simon actually lost a substantial sum of money and the victim of the attempted burglary retained all his possessions.
9.52. Victim care is important. It enables forces to provide relevant and timely crime prevention advice to victims with a view to reducing the risk of repeat victimisation, which is particularly prevalent among fraud victims. It also provides a means by which the police can signpost victims to other agencies who can provide more bespoke support.
9.53. We found little evidence of effective care for fraud victims generally. One neighbourhood police officer told us that:
“[w]hen I patrol my area I know who has been the victim of crime, except for those who have been the victim of fraud”.
9.54. We found that some forces have begun to develop strategies; however, with the exception of one force, they have yet to be implemented.
9.55. That one force was able to demonstrate impressive results. It has established a victim care unit specifically for victims of fraud. By identifying those individuals who are vulnerable to repeat victimisation, the unit is able to provide them with bespoke advice. We recognise that this unit is in its infancy but very early results indicate a significant reduction in repeat victimisation and an increase in victim satisfaction.
9.56. An important element in the unit’s initial success has been its recognition of the role that partner agencies play in the provision of victim care. As well as providing effective crime prevention advice, the unit directs victims to partner agencies. These agencies are then able to provide practical help to victims of crime.
9.57. Other forces will want to consider the effectiveness of their support and care for victims of fraud, including online fraud.
How do forces deal with referrals from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau?
9.58. Referrals from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to police forces are increasing year on year. Between October and December 2014, the bureau referred 18,751 cases to police forces and other law enforcement organisations.
9.59. While the way in which forces are structured to handle these referrals is outside the scope of our study, we do want to express our concerns about the inconsistency in approach adopted between forces in handling the referrals at all.
9.60. The bureau only refers a case back to a local force after it has assessed it and decided that there are viable opportunities to undertake a criminal investigation or to take disruptive action. It is incumbent upon the force concerned to consider any such referral and to take appropriate action.
9.61. Indeed, we found forces which did adopt a policy of allocating and investigating all referrals from the bureau. However, we are also aware of other forces (not those who took part in our study) that impose a financial threshold on bureau referrals with the consequence that those victims whose loss is below a certain amount do not have their cases allocated for further
investigation. We understand other forces impose arbitrary limits on the number of bureau referrals which they will investigate.
9.62. In one force, that limit has been set at 20 percent. We are unsighted about how a case is considered to be within the 20 percent band. Given that the force does not know when it makes that decision how many referrals it is to receive from the Bureau in any given time frame, we cannot understand how it decides whether a particular case falls within or outside the quota.
9.63. In seeking to help forces to identify what needs to be done, and in the absence of any authorised professional practice issued by the College of Policing, we cannot do any better than to cite the National Police Co-ordinator for Economic Crime. In his letter of March 2015 to chief constables, he set out best practice in relation to the management of fraud referrals from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.
9.64. In an abridged form, he said that there should be:
- a clear and auditable process for the receipt of National Fraud Intelligence Bureau case dissemination;
- a clearly understood and transparent process for the dissemination of cases to appropriately skilled investigators;
- an identified individual, responsible for case management, progress tracking, and reporting back to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau;
- the ability to test the provision of victim care in relation to calls for service coming into local contact centres or police enquiry desks;
- an identified subject matter lead at senior management team level; and
- an accountable chief officer to monitor and manage performance, including the support given to local victims.
9.65. We entirely agree.
9.66. Each chief constable needs to appoint a chief officer to ensure that his or her staff understand which cases should be referred to Action Fraud and which require a more immediate response, and that referrals from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau are dealt with effectively.