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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 21:47 GMT 22:47 UK
Fraudsters slip through regional net
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
Business reporter, BBC News

Fraud is big business. But police efforts to fight it are hampered by the artificial divisions between police forces, when fraudsters operate across regional boundaries.

Handcuffs
For the police, fraud has not been a high priority

They could be organised gangs targeting tax credits in Ilford or card cloners in Leeds, eBay fraudsters in Wales or tax dodgers in Darlington.

Throughout the UK, there are people looking to make a quick and easy buck out of the misfortune - and on occasion the credulity - of others.

According to some estimates, the UK is suffering about 20bn a year in losses on fraud and other forms of economic crime.

That figure, incidentally, is the most recent official figure - and it dates from some five years ago.

On any reckoning, it is a big problem with direct ramifications for everyone in the UK - and not just because of the impact of losses on taxes and insurance premiums.

"Fraud has a knock-on effect for normal people," says Detective Inspector Phil Butler, who leads Northumbria Police's Economic Crime Unit.

"Businesses get hit, and then people get made redundant."

Patchy response

Two of the most high-profile responses have emanated from London.

A year ago, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Sterling, a strategy to refocus its 100-plus economic crime detectives in trying to prevent, as well as react to, what the fraudsters were doing.

More recently, the new national Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) - which at its inception was thought to be taking a hands-off view towards fraud - has promised to devote at least 10% of its time and resources to large-scale organised fraud.

Soca is focused on the 2,600-odd individuals it knows about, and it doesn't necessarily want any more
Professor Alan Doig, Teesside University

Elsewhere, though, things are patchier.

It has long been common knowledge that police forces up and down the country have scaled back fraud squads as chief constables strive to fulfil the other priorities of their policing plans.

With an increased threshold of loss needed to get the police involved, victims and private sector practitioners have often given up on prosecution.

And even with the Serious Organised Crime Agency promising to get involved, the current picture means there are huge loopholes through which criminals can walk.

Split level

For Professor Alan Doig, head of the fraud management studies unit at Teesside University, the real problem lies with what the UK police's National Intelligence Model calls "level 2 crime".

This kind of wrongdoing falls short of really large-scale national and international organised crime, but nonetheless operates across and between regions.

"Organised crime groups are like amoebas," he says. "Every so often a bit splits off and is allowed to set up on its own."

City of London skyline
London has almost half the UK's economic crime detectives

So the fledgling group starts at level 1 - purely local crime - and if given the chance, graduates to level 2.

And then the problems begin.

"There's a gap between what local forces can do and what Soca will be doing," Mr Doig says.

"Soca is focused on the 2,600-odd individuals it knows about, and it doesn't necessarily want any more. The question is: who takes ownership of level 2?"

Outlying applicants

All this applies to crime in general - but with organised criminals paying ever more attention to white-collar crime, it applies with particular force to fraud.

After all, fraud - where much of the work can routinely be done at a distance or electronically - is peculiarly suited to be carried out across regions.

Take, for example, the spate of fraud which has hit the UK's tax credit system - spotted and reported by banks and building societies up and down the country.

A key indicator, says Newcastle Building Society fraud chief David Moore, was a string of applications for current accounts in Newcastle - from places like Essex.

"You can understand it if it's a market-leading product," he says. "But why apply from there for an ordinary product?"

Harm reduction

Different regions suffer disproportionately from different problems.

In the North-East, for example, tax evasion and the tax credit fraud are the biggest problems.

Twenty-pound notes
No-one knows just how much fraud costs the UK

In Manchester, meanwhile, a particular concern comes from so-called "long firm" frauds: where criminals set up a business, trade for a few months to build a reputation, and then disappear with the proceeds or the goods from a final big order.

But wherever they operate, and whatever their chosen attack, the gap in coverage means that career fraudsters - as opposed to, say, people who commit one-off corporate frauds - tend too often to get away with it.

"They're the ones who are causing huge harm to society," says Professor Doig.

Cooperation

Harm reduction, incidentally, is just what Soca has been set up to achieve - but without a stronger regional drive against fraud, that may be difficult to achieve.

Regional fraud initiatives are hardly a new idea.

For nearly a decade, senior police officers - led by the likes of Ken Farrow, formerly detective chief superintendent in charge of the City of London Police's fraud squad and now head of fraud for Lloyds TSB - have pushed for something along these lines.

During his leadership, the City force even ran what amounted to a pilot programme, acting as a "lead force" for the South-East of England, thanks to some temporary extra funding from the Home Office.

The government's rush to try to amalgamate the 43 police forces in England and Wales into larger units could provide added impetus for this kind of concept.

But the amalgamation is stalling amid complaints about its funding, its planning and even its basic rationale.

So up and down the country, fraud practitioners in both the public and private sectors are casting around for new solutions and fresh ideas.

And one pioneering initiative from the North-East just might hold part of the answer.

This is the first article in a two-part series on the UK's problems with economic crime. In part two, to appear on Friday 16 June: could the North-East's experience help revitalise the country's fight against fraud?




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