Never underestimate the traumatic impact of fraud, warns victims’ commissioner

Police and prosecutors should stop assuming that some fraud victims’ trauma cannot have the same impact as a serious assault, the victims’ commissioner has said.

Dame Vera Baird QC said that research, published on Wednesday, showed more than 700,000 fraud victims suffered “severe harm” as a result of the crime, but got “little or no care” to help them through the trauma.

The study by her team of researchers found nearly a quarter, 22 per cent, of the 3.2 million fraud victims each year experienced major financial loss, psychological damage, anxiety, loss of sleep or were highly vulnerable.

However, fraud was still being treated as a crime that did not have the same traumatising impact as other more violent offences, even though it now accounted for 36 per cent of all crime. Just 8,000 of the frauds are resulting in a prosecution, fewer than one in 400.

Psychological consequences as well as financial loss

Writing in The Telegraph, below, Dame Vera said: “Despite the prevalence of fraud, when we think of the word ‘victim’, fraud is probably not one of the first crimes that springs to mind.

“That may be because we make assumptions about only the more affluent suffering fraud or perhaps we assume that because it isn’t a physical or sexual attack, this crime does not have the same traumatising impact that those offences do.

“Yet in high-harm fraud cases, victims frequently suffer deeply. Fraud can be an intimate and interpersonal crime, engendering long-lasting psychological consequences as well as financial loss.”

Fraud prevention advice

She warned that as a result of these perceptions, many fraud victims were likely to “fall through the support net”, adding: “At the moment, victims do not know who to turn to when seeking advice, support or even when they are looking for redress through the criminal justice system.

“Most experience little to no victim care. This is extremely disappointing, especially given that long-lasting harm can frequently be suffered by victims.” 

The research, based on 35,000 households’ experience of fraud in the Office for National Statistics’ British Crime Survey, graded nine groups on the impact the crime had on them, with the top three most vulnerable and hardest hit accounting for 700,000 (or 22 per cent) of all victims.

The top group, accounting for 190,000 victims or six per cent of the total, suffered the largest financial losses, with a quarter reporting being defrauded out of £2,500 or more.

Largely white and aged 49 on average, they were least likely to be reimbursed for the loss and rate the impact as severe, while also suffering anxiety, loss of sleep and fractured relationships at home because of the guilt they felt.

Scamming the scammers – Antonia Hoyle 2

The second group were primarily elderly vulnerable victims, aged 69 on average, who also accounted for six per cent of cases. They were often alone, likely to be widowed, divorced or disabled, and have money or property taken.

They were also more likely to engage in “high-risk behaviour” where they were conned into co-operating with the fraudster after being contacted by them either face to face, over the phone or internet.

Dame Vera cited the case of one victim who said: “I still fear he can come back, because I told him so much about myself and I haven’t got any family here.

“Only two days ago, I saw a car outside and I needed to go to the shops and I wouldn’t go out till they’ve gone, because I have got this fear that they [are] probably watching the house. I shouldn’t be living like that.”

The third group, accounting for 10 per cent or 320,000 victims, were most likely to have had money or property taken via bank or credit account fraud.

They were the youngest group, with an average age of 41.6, but up to 80 per cent said they had been affected a lot or suffered “severe or multiple trauma”. They were the most likely to be from an ethnic minority.

Credit: Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

Bold and ambitious action on fraud will help victims

By Dame Vera Baird QC, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales

Fraud is huge. It now accounts for 39 per cent of all crime – nearly two in every five crimes. But not only is it immense in scale. It is growing at astonishing speed. 

Since 2019 and under Covid, fraud grew by almost a quarter, 24 per cent. Crime estimates suggest there were 4.6 million fraud offences in 2020-21. That makes it, by quite some distance, the largest category of crime. 

There is no doubting that fraud is one of the volume crimes of our times. But despite its prevalence, when we think of the word “victim”, fraud is probably not one of the first crimes that springs to mind. 

Yet fraud can be a very high-harm offence and victims can suffer greatly. Fraud can be a deeply intimate and interpersonal crime, causing long-lasting emotional trauma as well as financial loss. 

Examples of text and email scams V

We know that the police response to fraud is still not good enough. Presently, only about two per cent of police resources are committed to tackling fraud. It is hard to see how that’s even remotely commensurate to the task. Which is perhaps why out of 800,000 reports and three million victims, there were fewer than 8,000 fraud prosecutions in 2019. 

Too many victims still receive a poor service and are denied justice. But it is not just the investigative response to fraud which needs attention. With so few prosecutions, we need to know how well the overwhelming majority of fraud victims – who will not get a criminal justice outcome – are being supported. 

With no clear victim support pathway, victims often do not know who to turn to when seeking advice or support. 

My inbox bears testimony to this: I receive scores of letters and emails from victims of fraud. Most receive little to no victim care. But with such vast numbers of fraud victims each year, how do we ensure we target limited resources strategically and effectively? 

Landscape of fraud victimisation mapped out

My office has mapped out the landscape of fraud victimisation. It is the first time this has been done so comprehensively. We wanted to understand how we might break down the population of fraud victims into meaningful groups and understand what characterises those groups: who suffers from fraud and what is the impact of their being defrauded?

Published on Wednesday, my report is the first to cover both the minority who report to the police or Action Fraud, as little as 15 per cent, and the vast majority who do not. Its findings suggest which types of victim criminal justice agencies and support services may need to prioritise. 

Some of the findings were stark. The analysis found that almost a quarter, 22 per cent, of all fraud victims – about 700,000 people a year – are likely to be deeply affected. They may experience very high levels of financial loss, severe emotional strain, including suffering from anxiety or depression, and suffer relationship difficulties as a result of their being defrauded. 

The research also helps us understand that fraud victims are not a monolith. Even though the number of fraud victims is huge, more than half of fraud victims – about 1.74 million people – are likely to say the crime had little to no impact on them. So, there is certainly scope for us to target resources far more efficiently and effectively to ensure the most vulnerable victims are adequately supported. 

But I must stress that we found there is no typical victim of fraud. Anyone can be a victim. Fraud affects anyone and everyone, irrespective of age, income or gender. 

How to avoid online fraud

The fraud victims we found were diverse. One group included a high proportion of elderly people living alone who we might think of as classically vulnerable. But another group consisted of younger victims, two thirds of whom lived in rented accommodation and who were likely to be multiple victims (of fraud or other crimes) and live in relatively deprived areas. 

With a problem of this scale, one that impacts so very many of us, we cannot just confine our work to considering post-incident support. Rather, we must prioritise prevention. 

In its Beating Crime Plan, the Government promised to make changes to Action Fraud, the central hub for reporting fraud incidents, with an improved national fraud and cyber crime reporting system. 

And it promises better support for victims of fraud by expanding the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit, which looks after vulnerable victims and is currently only available across five police forces. 

I welcome these initiatives and will follow the progress as this unfolds. But it is striking that of the 20,000 words in the Beating Crime Plan, just 264 were dedicated to tackling fraud. 

The Government’s fraud action plan is expected later this year. As my research shows, it cannot come soon enough. It needs to be bold, ambitious and backed up by significant resourcing. Anything less will be a disservice to victims and a boon to fraudsters. 

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