How victims of Cyber Crime are being let down by Action Fraud
The undercover investigation carried out by the Times newspaper into Action Fraud has revealed a seemingly “defeatist” culture amongst under trained, underpaid and poorly recruited staff who appear to be spending the day taking calls and listening to victims of online fraud, filing reports and doing precious little else. This is sadly not surprising given the experience that we as a firm have had when acting for some of our clients who have been victims of online fraud in the form of anything from phishing attacks and fraudulent emails through to sophisticated malware and ransomware as well as fraud perpetrated through text messaging, instant messaging apps, social media and phone calls.
We always try and support our clients to the fullest extent possible and part of that often involves referring them to contact Action Fraud, if only to get a crime reference number to help with making and insurance claim if nothing else. I have spoken at conferences around the country on cyber security (as the author of the Law Society Cyber Security Toolkit) and often shared platforms with representatives from the police and Action Fraud who have always urged victims of fraud to contact Action Fraud to make sure that the matter is correctly registered and investigated so that the police can take on the fraudsters.
It is consequently so very disappointing to hear that callers are being routed through a call centre where calls are answered not by police officers but by poorly trained staff who are tasked with taking the briefest of reports and making an instant decision as to whether the incident should be filed as a crime report or an “information” report. It seems that the staff are paid barely above the minimum wage and for many of them this is their first job having left school at 16. They’ve received the absolute minimum of training with some of them taking “supervised” calls within 2 weeks of having started. The mandated Home Office training appears to be minimal compared to the training that staff in call centres dealing with customers in industries such as utilities or financial services where training usually lasts up to 6 weeks or more. Standards appear to be so poor that in what should be a “closed book” examination, the answers had been pre supplied while other material was literally stuck on the wall with those taking the assessment encouraged to get up and look at the answers.
As a result staff have been shown in undercover videos shot by the Times investigative journalist as play fighting, checking personal social media and literally drifting off to sleep all while taking live calls from victims of crime, many of whom may have lost substantial sums of money such as the proceeds of a house sale or the entirety of their pension funds. In many instances callers appear to be under the impression that they are speaking to police officers when in fact they are just speaking to barely listening teenagers who are eager to leave finish their shift and leave as soon as they can. One manager admits on Twitter to having worked shifts while inebriated.
The shocking thing here is that approximately a third of all crime in the UK is now made up of fraud. Yet of all of the more than 500,000 fraud cases reported last year barely 10,000 – a few percent of those reported – will result in any arrests. When victims of crime are being directed to the apparent cul-de-sac that is Action Fraud it is not difficult to see why success rates are so tiny, and these figures should have provoked action. It should not have required a journalist to walk into the call centre with a video camera and get it onto the front pages for the Home Office to wake up and take action. As a result, fraudsters are most likely fully aware that the bare minimum in terms of police resources is being directed at investigating them and stopping them, leaving them to be ever more adventurous and ambitious in targeting more and more innocent victims for ever larger sums.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect revealed by the Times investigation is that it has demonstrated that the Action Fraud service is being run for the lowest possible cost. Yet if a fraction of the public money spent on funding a call centre with a couple of hundred staff had been spent on better public education as to the risks of carrying out business online and some simple yet effective measures that people can take to protect themselves along with better working between the Government and some of the device manufacturers and service suppliers to make doing business online more transparent and secure it may have been possible to drastically reduce the spiraling number of online fraud cases that now appear to be swamping Action Fraud.
Since the Time investigation went public we have heard that the new Home Secretary is “concerned”, that the City of London Police who are responsible for Action Fraud are “horrified” and “saddened” but also that the activity observed by the journalist is being explained away as “isolated incidents” and that a handful of staff have been suspended. We now have to see if the totality of the response will be to simply sweep this under the carpet while blaming a few “bad apples” or whether this becomes a precursor to more effective reform. Clearly a story like this demonstrating victims of crime seemingly being “fobbed off” at the lowest possible price does not sit well alongside the Government’s investment in the National Cyber Security Centre with its stated aims of making the UK “the safest place in the world to do business online.” The NCSC spends the majority of its time supporting businesses that have been victims of cyber crime but in reality both private individuals, businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes can be victims of online fraud and a more joined up strategy in both supporting the victims of crime as well as preventing the fraud happening in the first place is needed. Without such strategic reform the billions lost to fraudsters as the result of cyber crime will simply continue to grow and grow and become an ever increasing drag on the UK economy which should be of concern not just to the Home Secretary but also the Chancellor and Prime minister.