The fight against fraud: why is the UK so lax?

Fraud is hitting the UK hard. Why are we failing to tackle one of the biggest threats to our security?

The UK is beleaguered by fraud – and the problem shows no signs of abating, as criminals exploit our vulnerabilities.

In its Annual Fraud Report 2022 UK Finance, which represents the banking and finance industry, called for greater cross-sector action to tackle the issue as fraudsters become increasingly skilled at adapting their methods to suit changes in consumer lifestyles and behaviour. 

A key concern is the rise of impersonation scams and authorised push payment (APP) fraud, when a payer is deceived or defrauded into authorising a payment to a criminal. UK Finance members reported 195,996 incidents of APP scams in 2021 with gross losses of £583.2m, compared with £420.7m in 2020. Of the total, £505.8m related to personal losses and £77.4m affected non-personal or business transactions.

It is clear the problem is widespread. Last year, communications regulator Ofcom found that eight out of 10 people surveyed had been targeted with scam texts or phone calls designed to convince them that they were from trusted organisations such as banks, the NHS or government departments. 

“Fraud has been the most common form of crime for several years and the threat continues to evolve and diversify,” says Mike Miller, economic crime manager at ICAEW. “Technological advancements and geopolitical shifts provide the backdrop for nefarious actors – be they nation states, organised criminal groups or petty criminals – to diversify their targets and methods of attack. 

“Mobile technology makes it easier for criminals to target victims directly, through various communication methods. And the government’s Covid financial support packages have presented more opportunities for fraudulent claims such as furlough payments.”

“Fraud has been the most common form of crime for several years now and the threat continues to evolve and diversify”

APP fraud often involves social engineering – scam texts, phone calls and emails – and with the move towards buying online, which ramped up during the pandemic, the opportunities for criminals abound. Fake websites and adverts featuring celebrities have been used by many unscrupulous types to encourage consumers to hand over personal details – and cash.

Peter Taylor is a fraud consultant and former CID fraud officer. He says that fraud has long been embedded in the UK and is habitually dismissed as victimless. But the devastation wreaked by fraudsters should not be underestimated. The crime, which manipulates human curiosity and our propensity to engage with others, can damage victims’ mental and physical health. Age UK says that older victims are 2.4 times more likely to die or go into a care home than people who are not scammed.

“Criminals are creatures of habit and if they make money they will keep coming back,” says Taylor. “The disruption from Covid and the funds available accelerated the growth of fraud – so it’s hardly surprising we are at the front of the queue when it comes to committing and being victims of fraud. We also have large networks of UK-based organised crime groups who have added fraud to their portfolio. When we add to that the fact that there is so much digital access to people in the UK, English being the most spoken language in the world, and a lack of arrests, we are an attractive prospect globally.”

Fraud is so rife that the National Crime Agency describes it as the most common crime in the UK, costing many billions of pounds every year – and it’s thought the crime is under-reported, so the problem is likely to be far worse than official figures state. And as well as the personal losses suffered by vulnerable victims, duped businesses may collapse.

Stoyan Barrett, specialist crime operations investigator and cybersecurity expert, notes that smaller businesses are increasingly interesting targets for would-be attackers who know that many firms simply don’t think they’ll be targeted.

“Criminals are creatures of habit and if they make money they will keep coming back”

“How might you deal with a system lockdown, a ransomware attack, followed by a request for £20,000 to unlock your business? Savvy up: tech is valuable so let’s treat it as such,” he warns. “If an SME does not prioritise cybersecurity as a fundamental, then sadly when they fall victim it is not difficult to see why so many are unable to recover … we should now be targeting cybercrime and cybersecurity in much the same manner as smoking, as it represents the largest threat to our economy.”

To try to address the problem, UK Finance heads up the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign to raise awareness to help consumers and businesses to protect themselves. It encourages people to stop and think before parting with money or information; to challenge – stressing that it’s ok to reject, refuse or ignore any requests, and to protect – contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen for a scam.

But while prevention is a common-sense approach, some experts believe a single body should be in place to combat fraud, rather than the current piecemeal approach that sees dozens of bodies pitching in and relies on potential victims to be astute. 

“Almost all the regulations to tackle fraud are poorly enforced and place the burden of detection on the companies on the front lines. That would work well if oversight by regulators was more than cursory – which is largely due to lack of resourcing,” says security consultant James Bore.

“The number of bodies responsible for tackling fraud needs to be simplified. It’s no longer a regional issue, so it makes little sense to have regional police authorities responsible for fraud. And beyond that, there are multiple bodies acting on economic crime. Centralising these into a single, well-resourced agency with a single purpose would make a world of difference.”It is perhaps a sign of the times that even the likes of UK Fraud and the National Crime Agency, among other official organisations, warn website visitors that fraudsters impersonate them – making it yet more difficult to know who to trust.