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Last Updated: Monday, 24 October 2005, 22:50 GMT 23:50 UK
Fraud's unseen victims
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News business reporter

When it comes to fraud, the headlines are all about the numbers.

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A bank manager steals 10m and leaves behind an IOU. A Japanese bank narrowly escapes losing 200m to an audacious internet fraud. Five people are arrested in a suspected 3m share rip-off.

The overall totals are difficult to assess, and the collection of figures is irregular. But as long ago as 2000, the Home Office put the damage at 13.8bn - a figure few believe is likely to have fallen since.

But with all the attention paid to the perpetrators and their gains, say some experts, the victims tend to be kept out of the spotlight.

And that plays straight into the fraudsters' hands.

According to Ros Wright, head of the Fraud Advisory Panel and former chief of the Serious Fraud Office, the problem is partly one of perception.

"There is an awful lot of scepticism in the minds of the public about people who lose money to fraudsters," she says.

"People think: they're greedy, they're rich and they're stupid. None of that's true."

Who pays?

There's certainly a habit of putting fraudsters in the same category as con artists: those who find a victim's blind spot and exploit it.

But that's only a small subset of economic crime in general. For individuals, the growing threat is ID fraud, in which the first time the victim knows they've been targeted is when their bank account is drained.

And the biggest losses of all occur when companies are hit - or when it's the public purse that is the victim, as with benefit fraud or tax evasion.

There are lost jobs and empty pension funds... All of us pay
Ros Wright, Fraud Advisory Panel

Whatever the scenario, Ms Wright points out, we are all victims.

"There are lost jobs and empty pension funds," she says. "All of us pay through the price of goods and services - and in the damage to the UK's reputation as a place to do business."

Resource poor

Yet fraud remains an under-investigated crime.

Senior police officers acknowledge that - with fraud a lowly priority for the Home Office, which sets budgets and targets - few forces outside London can run much of a fraud squad these days.

The result is that the police response is - so says Ms Wright - inadequate, despite some outstanding exceptions; and the government has to take responsibility for the situation.

"They are simply not taking the resource question seriously enough," she says.

For example, the City of London Police, which looks after the country's key financial centre, and has (proportional to its numbers) the biggest fraud squad in the country, has recently become the "lead force" for the South-East of England.

Its expertise is meant to assist its sister forces in its region. It asked for 5m a year to do so, to be matched pound-for-pound by the Corporation of London; it received 1m.

"We are looking for the government to wake up to the danger of having so little resources available to tackle financial crime," Ms Wright says.

New rules

There are, however, one or two signs that things - albeit slowly - are changing.

There's a valid argument for Soca to take fraud on - but it won't
Ros Wright, Fraud Advisory Panel

In July, the government announced a wholesale review of the way fraud is handled by both the police and the courts.

A new Fraud Bill is before parliament, creating - for the first time - an offence of fraud.

That will put the intention to gain by deception - rather than the mechanics of any particular scam - at the heart of any prosecution.

The big picture

At the same time, two developments in UK policing amount to the biggest shakeup in years.

In April, a new national Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) opens its doors, with a structure that puts financial investigation at the heart of its operations.

For years, the likes of Ken Farrow - till August the chief superintendent in charge of the City of London Police's economic crime department and now head of fraud at Lloyds TSB - have called for a national fraud squad.

Their calls have till now foundered on resistance from chief constables from some of the 43 forces in England and Wales, who foresaw lost budgets and a leakage of personnel.

Soca, unfortunately, won't take up that challenge either: its main priorities are class A drugs and people smuggling, and its financial teams will focus on money laundering rather than fraud.

There are only 700 police in the UK's fraud squads

With fraud more and more attractive to organised crime, "there's a valid argument for Soca to take it on", says Ros Wright.

"But it won't."

All change

However, the slack just might be taken up by the other big change on the horizon.

Many of the 43 forces are simply too small to sustain a viable fraud squad. But they are now under Home Office orders to merge, a plan which could leave about a dozen forces in all.

That could mean a new lease of life for the alternative idea: regional fraud squads, using the City of London/South-East pilot as a model.

"It's certainly a possibility," says Ken Farrow, "if the changes result in effective regional police forces."

Not that this is a surefire certainty, however.

For one thing, experts like Mr Farrow worry that the current focus on seizing the proceeds of crime - however laudable - could mean even less resources for the complexities of fraud investigation.

For another, unless the government changes its tune, the National Policing Plan will keep the money heading for high-volume, high-profile crime, whatever change in structure there may be.

But at least, says Ms Wright, there's now a window of opportunity to put fraud back on the map - and the victim at the heart of the agenda.

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