Freya Smith, Analyst
Friday 22 September 2023
Crest Advisory, in partnership with Birkbeck University and the Police Foundation, is conducting research into the nature of online fraud. The project to date has included a large-scale online survey, the findings of which will be published later this month, and a roundtable discussion at the Cambridge Economic Crime Symposium. The event was moderated by Dr Ellie Brown, Head of Strategy at Crest, and brought together a range of national experts with different views and experiences of online fraud including:
Dave Carter MBE (Global Head of Counter Fraud at the British Council)
Brendan Charnock (Senior Policy and Commissioning Manager, MOPAC)
Brian Dilley (Group Director of Economic Crime Prevention, Lloyds Banking Group until April 2023)
Ian Dyson (Retired Commissioner for the City of London Police)
Simon Miller (Director of Policy and Communication at Stop Scams UK)
Pauline Smith MBE (Director of Action Fraud, City of London Police),
Tim Stacey (Senior Policy Advisor, Which?).
We’re very grateful to all the participants for their insights and contributions. The summary below sets out some of the key challenges identified during the roundtable which will be reflected in the rest of our research.
Busting myths and understanding victims
What became clear from hearing panellists' first-hand experiences of the online fraud landscape, is that there are a number of myths and misconceptions about online fraud - in part due to the significant rate of under-reporting (non-reporting is currently at 86%). For example, there’s a mistaken view that fraud doesn’t have much impact beyond the financial impact - the survey we’ll soon be publishing suggests it does. Another common misconception is that elderly people are more likely to be victims of online fraud, but that isn’t backed up by research. Instead, our expert panel agreed that those under the age of 30 are emerging as a growing group of victims who need support, and our survey results will shed more light on this new trend.
The panellists said that unlike some other crimes anyone can become a victim of online fraud. There isn’t, for example, a ‘typical victim’ or a clear picture of the characteristics of victims and how these may relate to risk. Traditionally, crime would be committed by people living in local communities - that is unlikely to be the case with online fraud. There may also be individual factors, such as being stressed, tired or distracted that contribute to a person's vulnerability to online fraud.
The online world seems to have increased these touch points in vulnerability, with fraudsters taking advantage of people’s health and financial concerns during major national and international events. For example, during the COVID pandemic, there was a rise in vaccination fraud and work-from-home scams; the cost of living crisis led to online fraud centering on energy refunds, tax rebates and food vouchers; the war in Ukraine increased opportunities for charity fraud.
‘We are bombarded [...] it is challenging for us as individuals to understand that we are constantly at threat’ - panellist
The impact of online fraud
Another key theme was the unhelpful perception that online fraud is often a victimless or low-impact crime with only financial consequences. Panellists provided first-hand observations of the wide-ranging and long-lasting effects of online fraud, including where life savings had been stolen and cases of suicide. Our experts also discussed the impact of romance fraud, in which a person is duped into sending money to someone they wrongly believe has fallen in love with them. Those affected by romance fraud experience a ‘double victimisation’, where they have to contend with the theft of their money and the breakdown of a relationship with the offender, as well as fallouts with friends and family.
‘You cannot underestimate the impact’- Panellist
Victims of fraud often suffer alone. Panellists said the high rates of under-reporting may partly be due to a strong victim-blaming discourse that exists around fraud. For example, victims are frequently described as having ‘lost money’, which, combined with messaging urging victims to ‘protect yourself online’, indirectly creates a narrative that the responsibility for what has happened is on their shoulders. That can lead to a sense of shame and embarrassment which deters online fraud victims from reporting and exacerbates the impact of the offence. Our survey results will delve deeper into such reasons for underreporting.
Supporting victims and preventing online fraud
Panellists discussed what could be done, going forward, to better support victims and prevent online fraud. The overwhelming consensus was that there needs to be greater partnership working to support victims and recognise that fraud is a hugely devastating crime. It was suggested, for example, that information could be shared with adult social care services to ensure a more coordinated, holistic response for vulnerable victims.
Work on this has already begun through the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit (NECVCU), which was introduced in 2019 in the City of London police force area and has since been rolled out to all 43 forces in England and Wales. The NECVCU provides three levels of service according to the vulnerability of each victim. Level 3, for the most vulnerable, focuses on safeguarding and supporting people using a multi-agency approach. Of those using the NECVCU services, only 0.03 per cent were the victims of a subsequent online fraud. That compares with CSEW data suggesting that 13 per cent of all fraud victims have been victimised more than once. Our panellists praised the NECVCU and its positive impact.
They also said that in general the response to fraud shouldn’t just fall on the police or private companies - but must be holistic. At present, collaboration between the public and private sectors falls short of what some of the panellists desired.
From next year, banks will be required to reimburse in full victims of Authorised Push Payment fraud (APP), except where there is gross negligence. APP fraud happens when someone is tricked into making a payment, for instance through a bank transfer, to a criminal pretending to be a legitimate payee. The experts at our roundtable praised this development as a positive step in supporting victims and said it might lead to an increase in reporting. But they pointed out that there must be a greater focus on preventing fraud, with all parts of the system involved.
‘There is no one solution, but every facet of the system has a part to play’- panellist
Online fraud is now a significant problem across the world. It does not discriminate; in our ever increasing globalised society we are all at risk. Therefore, greater understanding is needed to prevent online fraud alongside supporting victims. Our survey report will provide this understanding, but we are aware that work does not stop there. The next phase of our research will focus on speaking directly to those with experience of online fraud, through interviews with victims and focus groups with the general public. Further, panellists highlighted how more work needs to be done across the private and public sector to prevent fraud, and we will therefore be producing a comprehensive policy and practice map to inform this.
You can find out more about our project here, and if you are interested in getting involved in this research, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org