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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 May, 2005, 22:42 GMT 23:42 UK
Police seek new tactics to fight fraud
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News business reporter

Police recruits
Police numbers are going up, but fraud squads are shrinking
There's a hole in your bank account. You've been taken for a ride. Or you've just discovered that money's been leaking out of your company.

Faced with the reality of fraud, who do you call?

There's the police, obviously. One of the UK's 160,000-odd officers must be able to help.

But fewer than one in 200 - about 700 officers in all - work in a fraud squad.

London's two forces, the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police, have more than 200 between them.

Cumbria, in contrast, has two officers, while Bedfordshire has none at all.

For police forces up and down the country, economic crime is low priority, meaning that squads are downsized and new blood is hard to come by.

"We had a hundred-and-something cops from all around the country at one recent conference," says detective chief superintendent Ken Farrow, head of the City of London Police's economic crime department.

"If you looked around, they all had grey hair."

The problem is that resources all to often depend on results, which means conviction numbers.

Det Ch Supt Ken Farrow, City of London Police
The perception has been that we're going to come in with our size 12 boots and bring business to a standstill
Detective chief superintendent Ken Farrow
City of London Police

A complex fraud investigation can tie up officers for months, Mr Farrow says, only to produce perhaps a couple of convictions at the end, during which time the same detectives could have cleared up a dozen more straightforward cases.

Losing the victim

Consequently, much fraud and economic crime simply slips below the police radar.

"Reactive fraud work has been a bottomless pit," says detective chief superintendent Nigel Mawer, in charge of the London Met's economic crime division.

"I've got limited resources, so in the past all we were doing was pushing up the monetary level at which we accepted cases.

"It stopped us being swamped, but it lost us our connection with the victims."

So with the threshold to win police attention as high as 750,000 in London, more and more business looked to private sector firms for redress. Individuals, meanwhile, were out in the cold.

Across the divide

Top cops have had enough.

"It's time we re-engaged," says Mr Mawer.

Mr Farrow, for instance, has managed to get several million pounds out of the Home Office to make the City the "lead force" for fraud in the South-East, taking on cases which other forces are not equipped to handle or which cross force boundaries.

He is also breaching the barriers between the police and the private sector, utilising technical and other expertise from the companies whose losses his teams investigate.

"The perception has been that we're going to come in with our size 12 boots and bring business to a standstill," he says.

Let's see what happens if we put money laundering first and fraud second - play the man not the ball
Detective chief superintendent Nigel Mawer
Metropolitan Police

By bringing the victim into the loop - using its own people to assist, for instance - he is trying to rebuild trust.

And public-private partnerships in law enforcement partnerships have just got a further boost.

Detective chief inspector Tony Thomas - previously head of London's Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Card Unit, half-funded by the financial industry and a pilot for similar projects elsewhere - has just been promoted to head up economic crime at the National Crime Squad.

Joined up?

Mr Mawer is also keen to bring the private sector in, to maximise scarce resources.

He stresses the need to join up as many organisations as possible to build a picture of the problems they face.

It is all part of a modern law enforcement mantra: intelligence-led policing.

Earlier in 2005, London's Met launched a strategy for economic crime - Operation Sterling - which has intelligence at its core.

After a year of studying the problem, Mr Mawer now has a dedicated team designing preventive measures to deal with the big issues.

Follow the money

Sterling's big change is in the Met's decision to redefine the problem of economic crime.

Evidence collected
Digging through fraud evidence can take months
For three years now, the Proceeds of Crime Act has given police forces and other agencies a suite of new powers to go after criminals' money.

Under the act - a "phenomenal bit of legislation", says Mr Mawer - once you show that a suspect's legitimate earnings do not match their lifestyle, it is up to them to prove that they're not the proceeds of crime.

The act makes acquiring, possessing, using, selling or handling stolen property in any way into a case of money laundering - shifting the emphasis from proving the crime to proving where its proceeds have gone.

Combined with intelligence, this could mean short-circuiting the long-winded, resource-intensive way of looking at economic crime, and taking people out before they become prolific offenders.

"We're not using [the act] to its fullest potential yet," says Mr Mawer. "Traditional fraud investigators are tenacious people, worrying about every detail.

"But let's see what happens if we put money laundering first and fraud second - play the man not the ball."

Catching up?

Not everyone is entirely happy with this approach.

Mr Farrow has no doubt that the act is a good thing, but he worries that the rush to hire financial investigators - the people who do the donkey work of proving Proceeds of Crime Act cases, not only for economic crime but for all sorts of cases - will strip fraud squads even closer to the bone.

In the private sector, too, there are concerns.

"Sterling appears finally to signal that the Met are making the tackling of economic crime a priority," says Steven Philippsohn, one of London's top fraud and asset recovery lawyers.

But he points out that no new funding is available, and warns the plan seems to be as much about remedying past inadequacies as about new strategies.

Still, restricted resources are inescapable in the public sector, says Peter Connor, a former Met Fraud Squad chief inspector and now a director of corporate investigations at the Risk Advisory Group.

"It makes a lot of sense to attack the proceeds of crime," he says.

"It's easier to do.

"With a fraud investigation, establishing culpability is painstaking, but if you can establish someone's in possession of money they can't explain, that's a great starting point."

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