Saturday 21 August 2021 10:00 am

Action Fraud was fruitless agency - its downfall should teach us the perils of letting skulduggery go unpunished

Nick Vamos is a partner at Peters & Peters LLP

At the end of July, the Government announced it would scrap Action Fraud, the national gateway for triaging and allocating fraud complaints for police investigation. The decision is long overdue. 

Official reports criticising Action Fraud’s performance have been practically an annual event. The repeated criticism was that Action Fraud was a toothless crime-recording body – a black hole into which fraud reports simply disappeared, leaving victims without redress.

The statistics are alarming: in the year ending March 2021 there were 837,104 fraud offences recorded in the UK, up 8 per cent on the previous year, but only 1 in 50 Action Fraud reports lead to a suspect being caught. The most damning evidence came out in a Times exposé in 2019, which revealed that call handlers at Action Fraud were being trained to mislead victims into thinking their cases would be investigated. That was three years ago, it is only now that the body is being abandoned.

Action Fraud’s poor showing is symptomatic of a wider problem with law enforcement’s response to fraud. Earlier this month a report commissioned by the Home Secretary concluded that too many victims receive a poor service and are denied justice due to lack of police resources. Only 1 in 200 officers are dedicated to investigating fraud despite it making up over 15 per cent of all recorded crime. According to one officer, because fraud does not “bang, bleed or shout” it simply is not considered a priority.

Action Fraud was set up in 2013 as the central reporting hub for all fraud and cybercrime complaints in England and Wales. It has no investigative powers and, despite nominally being run by City of London Police, is currently outsourced to US firm, Concentrix. When a report is made to Action Fraud, it is automatically screened by artificial intelligence to assess a number of factors that decide whether it will be passed on for review, including risk, financial loss and the vulnerability and age of the victim. Some of these reports fail at the first hurdle and are simply left “on file”, sometimes for several months. Indeed, many are never reviewed by a person at all.  

Cases that pass first review are then assessed by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB), which identifies the reports most suitable for investigation and then (in theory) these reports are passed on to a local police force.  

The vast majority of the cases reported to Action Fraud were either not investigated or rejected owing to a lack of police resources, or because they were not seen as a priority. The significant frustration and anxiety for those individuals of businesses who might have been able to pursue alternative options, had they known no action would be taken, must not be underestimated.

However, the vast majority of cases reported to Action Fraud are either not investigated or rejected owing to a lack of police resources, or because they are not seen as a priority. This can lead to significant frustration, particularly for those individuals or business who may have been able to pursue alternative options if they had known no action would be taken. When cases are delayed by many months, the ability to follow up on live leads is greatly diminished. There is often only a short window of opportunity to gather vital evidence in fraud cases.

The successor to Action Fraud, the new National Fraud and Cybercrime Reporting System, promises to “improve the service to victims, provide greater intelligence and insight to policing on fraud and cybercrime”.

The long-awaited overhaul is welcome, but the plans are scant on detail on how it will deliver redress for victims and improve access to justice.

To properly address the failings of Action Fraud, there will need to be more staff with better specialist training to enhance service to victims, speed up decision-making and improve support through the process. Words only go so far. Given the universal acceptance that police lack the resources to properly tackle fraud, a new agency runs the risk of merely being a new acronym destined to be as ineffectual as its predecessor. If the Government hopes to address the failings of Action Fraud at their roots, a rebrand will do very little.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.