Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.
When Willie Sutton, possibly the most famous bank robber in American history, was asked why he stole from banks, he answered simply: ‘That’s where the money is.’
His phrase has since become widely used to say clearly that the obvious target may also be the best.
Sutton died in 1980, but were he pursuing his criminal career today, he wouldn’t be a bank robber. He’d be a fraudster.
Sadly, the fact is that we are all increasingly vulnerable to small-time and big-time fraud. It has become an epidemic. We urgently need a solution similar to the way we found answers to Covid with the development of vaccines.
However, I fear that many of the solutions being put forward by politicians and banks won’t hit the mark. Rightly, thousands of police officers are being recruited to guard our homes but a very different form of protection is needed against fraud.
Above all, we need a new National Fraud Squad. Without a special, dedicated force to tackle fraud, criminals will continue to thrive.
According to the National Crime Agency, ‘fraud is the most commonly experienced crime in the UK’. The independent Social Market Foundation (SMF) — a think-tank on whose advisory board I sit – says it costs our economy £137 billion a year. It involves counterfeiting, data misuse, credit card deception, online scams and identity theft.
Just a small amount of that could more than cover the costs of a new force and save banks and insurers billions. We need to talk about funding with them to raise the new money to protect them – and families across our country.
The effects of fraud are devastating, ranging from unaffordable personal losses suffered by individuals to the ability of organisations to stay in business. It is no exaggeration, too, to say that fraud undermines the trust that makes Britain respected around the world.
But it is at the level of individuals and families that fraud can cause the most misery. People work hard for their money and deserve protection to keep it safe. Yet their money is increasingly at risk.
Every year, millions fall prey to devious, unscrupulous and cowardly thieves who misuse technology to steal their money. It’s too easy just to concede defeat and think this is just the way of the modern world. But the distressing truth is that this is a very British problem.
According to Seon, a cybersecurity firm, Britons are more likely to be the victims of internet fraud than people anywhere else in the developed world. Data from the European Central Bank, suggests that Britons are more likely to be the victims of card fraud than people in any European country.
Last year, Reuters dubbed Britain “the bank scam capital of the world”. It stated publicly what the big banks normally only say in private: our advanced electronic payments system, our role as a global financial hub and the popularity of the English language all combine to make Britain the number one choice for the world’s fraudsters. This is shocking for a country that so values law and order.
The stories I’ve heard from people in my community and across the country who’ve seen hard-earned money, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds, stolen by lying, swindling crooks make me angry. They have also convinced me that we aren’t doing enough to track and punish fraudsters.
Sadly, our policing systems are under-powered, under-funded and badly organised. Our hotchpotch of agencies and local police forces isn’t up to scratch.
The City of London Police, the national lead force on fraud, depends on annually-decided Home Office grants for its fraud-tackling activities which disincentivises long-term planning and investment. Action Fraud (a service operated by the police) and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (which analyses reported fraud cases, prior to investigation) both lack sufficient staff, their technical systems are outdated and they are underfunded.
We need to start again, treating fraud as what it is: a national emergency that requires an immediate and national response.
The SMF calculates that in England and Wales, only 1,753 officers and staff in 2021 were primarily focused on economic crimes such as fraud. That’s just 0.8 per cent of the total police workforce. In other words, statistically, for every 1,000 reported fraud, there is less than a half of a police officer or staff primarily focused on economic crime.
The SMF says that to bring fraud policing up to the required level to tackle such crimes properly would mean deploying another 30,000 staff.
Reform requires a comprehensive approach that focuses on those organised criminal groups who use of digital technologies to commit the crimes. There should be a new leadership group jointly chaired by the Chancellor, the Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Justice – with responsibilities redistributed among all law enforcement agencies.
Also, we need a shake-up of laws to replace the myriad of legislation brought in piecemeal over the years to tackle cyber-based, organised and economic crime. And, crucially, too, reform of the criminal justice process, possibly with specialist courts and tougher sentences. Such changes – and a National Fraud Squad – would send a clear signal that the Government is doing something to try to protect people from the abject misery that can result from being the victim of fraud.