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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Card fraud 'is not investigated'
chip and pin machine
Critics have suggested the changes may 'massage' crime figures
The government has been accused of "effectively decriminalising" routine credit card fraud, after new rules were introduced in England and Wales.

After the changes, fraud complaints are now handled by banks, which now decide whether to refer them to the police.

The worry is that crimes will not be reported, and a BBC investigation has found that two police forces have not handled any fraud cases since April.

But banks said the rule changes had not stopped them reporting fraud cases.

Red tape burden

A spokesman for the Attorney General's office told the BBC:

"It is wrong to suggest the Government is not taking these issues seriously.

"Building on the measures already in place, detailed design work is now underway to establish a national fraud reporting centre. This will enable victims of fraud to report, hopefully on line, a variety of fraud types including credit card."

The new system, introduced in April, follows promises of a shift in priorities based on a Fraud Review by the government last year.

It's not in our interests as an industry not to report cases to the police
Sandra Quinn, Apacs

The review did not offer any new money for fraud investigations, but called for a national centralised reporting centre to ensure fraud was not ignored, and promote greater coopertation between police and the private sector.

However, these changes could take up to two years to get under way, and senior police officers say the reporting centre is still at the very earliest stages of planning.

In the meantime, the new reporting structure is seen in some quarters as undermining the logging of fraud offences.

Police responsibility

Until April, the police were meant to be the first port of call for fraud reporting.

But for a number of years fraud squads have been shrinking across most of the UK, and by 2006 there were fewer than 400 police officers outside London dedicated to fraud investigation.

As a result of this, and because of the low priority given to fraud offences, investigations have dwindled - as the police officer in charge of the new system at the Home Office has acknowledged.

"Part of the purpose of the changes was to relieve the police of the bureaucracy involved in recording offences which were never investigated," he wrote in an email.

Indeed, an investigation by BBC Newsnight's Martin Shankleman found that in the Gwent and North Yorkshire forces, not a single new fraud case had been considered since April.

'Come clean'

According to Andrew Goodwill, from security firm Early Warning, this meant that fraudsters were being given the green light.

"The police have come clean," Mr Goodwill said. "They're not in the future going to investigate credit card fraud... which in effect decriminalises credit card fraud."

This, I think, is shocking because it gets police out of the loop
Professor Ross Anderson, Cambridge University

And Professor Ross Anderson, a security specialist at Cambridge University, suggested that it might mean lower levels of reporting - since banks might have a conflict of interest.

"This, I think, is shocking because it gets police out of the loop," he said.

"It means when you have got misfeasance by the banks themselves, they can cover it up."

Prof Anderson accused the police and the Home Office of wanting to "massage the crime statistics downwards".

He added: "If you have got 2,000 people coming along and saying 'my card has been cloned a the garage in Cambridge or here are these transactions in Thailand which I have never visited', that is 2,000 crimes reported.

"But if the bank comes along and says, 'we appear to have an insider fraud at a particular filing station - please investigate', that is one crime reported.

"From the Home Office point of view that is very, very convenient."

New rules

Banks, however, rejected the claims.

Apacs, the UK trade association for financial institutions delivering payment services to UK customers, dismissed any suggestion of a conflict of interest.

"We're not reporting every single fraud to every single police force," said Sandra Quinn, Apacs' director of corporate communications, "because we know that historically the police forces have not been able to deal with every single incidence and they're not going to be in the future either."

I think it is totally wrong to change the way credit card fraud is reported
Deeb, Winchester

"What the new rules are doing is replicating what was happening in the past," she added.

"Unfortunately, the police don't have the resources to investigate all types of card fraud. There are a number of cases that have been referred to the police," Ms Quinn continued.

"It's not in our interests as an industry not to report cases to the police."

She said individual banks had mentioned a number of cases to the police to be investigated.

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