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Last Updated: Monday, 30 January 2006, 01:02 GMT
Q&A: Soaring fraud
Major fraud cases involving almost 1bn in went through the UK courts in 2005, a new survey says - a threefold increase on the previous year.

BBC News examines the trends underlying the rise, and the response to it.

Just how big is the UK's fraud problem?

It has always been difficult to work out how much fraud actually goes on in the UK.

Fraudsters are becoming more inventive

The Home Office sometimes quotes a five-year-old survey which puts the figure at 20bn a year - about 2% of the overall UK economy.

Last year a report by insurance group Norwich Union, piecing together numerous surveys covering economic crime, came up with a similar figure - 16bn.

Now KPMG has produced its annual Fraud Barometer - which talks of a "10-year high" of 941m, triple 2004's figure.

But this last figure comes solely from the hard data produced by UK court cases during 2005 involving losses of more than 100,000.

As such, the report is more an indicator of a trend - an unmistakeably upward trend most significantly in the amount of money stolen by insiders, in particular managers.

So does that mean fraud has tripled in the past year?

Almost certainly not.

Experts are convinced a substantial slice of the rise since 2004 is the result of a growing willingness to go public, and therefore to prosecute.

Part of the problem with putting a price on the cost of fraud in the UK has always been the degree to which organisations were reluctant to own up to attacks and losses.

Total fraud cases: 222
Total value: 942m
Worst hit region: London/South East (674m)
Worst hit sectors: Government (448m), financial sector (360m)
Main perpetrators: Managers (421m), professional criminals (421m)

Revealing fraud, it was often felt, would embarrass the organisation in question by letting customers - and competitors - know it was vulnerable.

But several developments have changed that.

Most importantly, the UK's financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has gone out of its way to promote both the fight against economic crime as a key part of its remit and to threaten sanctions against companies which fail to take proper precautions.

But there is also more of an awareness that it is often possible to get back the money that has been lost.

The UK's legal system is generally seen as one of the world's most friendly to victims when it comes to asset recovery, and High Court judges are often sympathetic to measures such as freezing suspects' bank accounts.

Added to which, fraud practitioners say that banks' own systems for tracking and analysing the flows of finances are getting more sophisticated - which means some scams that would have once flown under the radar are now more likely to see the light of day.

This shift is one driver for the tenfold rise in the value of financial sector fraud cases hitting the courts.

If fraud's going up, what is the government going to do about it?

The government is six months into its Fraud Review - a project designed to map more accurately the damage fraud does to the UK.

One immediate result is likely to be a change in legislation. Currently fraud is dealt with in the courts under a whole range of offences, such as obtaining money by deception.

The problem is that the law is rather specific about what kind of crime can be considered, leaving loopholes for defendants to exploit.

The new offences will change the emphasis, concentrating on what is done - specifically misusing one's position, using deception and wrongfully failing to disclose information - rather than how.

What about the police?

For a long time, fraud squads have been the poor relation in policing.

Dido Mayue-Belezika
Dido Mayue-Belezika was convicted of a 20m cheque fraud in 2005

There are only about 600 dedicated fraud detectives in the UK, most of whom are in one or other of London's two police forces - the Metropolitan and City of London police forces.

With government targets focusing on street crime, violence and counter-terrorism, complex and lengthy fraud investigations have tended to lose out when it comes to resources.

There are hopes that the fraud review could change that. Home Secretary Charles Clarke has hinted that regional - or even national - fraud squads could be part of the solution.

The really big shake-up comes in April, with the start of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) - often dubbed "Britain's FBI".

Its job is to deal with large-scale criminal businesses, which are increasingly targeting fraud and economic crime as a low-risk, high-value way of making a dishonest living.

At one point, it was feared that Soca would write economic crime out of its remit.

But senior Soca officials are now saying that their growing realisation of the harm done by fraud and economic crime has pushed it well up the agenda.

They are building tighter relationships with the private sector and promising to share information more efficiently with their counterparts in commerce and finance.

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