Will Barber-Taylor discusses how Covid-19 has afforded opportunity for scammers to further prey on vulnerable people.
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic that is still misery on people around the world, we have been physically divided from one another. This has not, however, stopped us from engaging with one another – be it on social media, video conference platforms or via the phone, we have been able to regularly keep in touch with our loved ones. Yet, this has opened a door for one particular group of individuals to inflict emotional and financial harm on the most vulnerable members of our society.
Colloquially known as scammers, criminals who use confidence tricks to gain money, these groups of criminals have been utilising the pandemic to their advantage. Between February and March this year approximately £800,000 had been lost due to coronavirus specific scamming offences with this figure rising to £1.6 million by April. By June, Citizens Advice was reporting that according to a recent survey conducted by them, one in three people in the UK had been targeted by coronavirus-based scams.
The money lost does not simply represent a major financial hit to those effected but an emotional one as well. In an age when focus on mental health has been rightly prioritised, the emotional impact of scamming has often been overlooked. Perhaps the cruellest scams have been those that posed as local contacts in the government’s Track and Trace programme, asking for money so victims could be tested for coronavirus.
Given the startling inadequacies of the government’s coronavirus policy, the fact that Track and Trace was abused in such a manner should surprise no one. Yet this should not diminish the stress and strain this has inflicted on the victims of these crimes. Nor should we consider the issue of fraud via phone or online scams to have emerged only because of the current pandemic.
Over the past decade, with the spread of accessibility to the internet and information on individuals, fraud through scams has been on the rise. In 2014, Citizens Advice estimated that up to four million people per year were being scammed in some way, mainly via phone and email messages. Yet, despite the growing prevalence of fraudulent scamming in our society and its seeming acceleration during the current pandemic, the government have failed time and time again to properly deal with scammers.
Whilst some may argue that given that scams are often heavily underreported and that many scammers live outside the UK, it is difficult to properly deal with either on a policy or policing level, they’d be incorrect. It is true that incidents of scamming are heavily underreported which should mean that those that are should be of a higher priority than they currently are.
Similarly, though it is true that a great deal of scammers fraud is based overseas a similarly large amount is domestic. Indeed, even if the perpetrators are overseas this should not prevent UK forces working with their counterparts to ensure UK citizens and citizens abroad are not subject to such illegal activity. However, these points do not get to the crux of why this government has failed to deal with scammers efficiently.
In 2011 Action Fraud began taking over the recording of fraud in the UK from regional police forces. Whilst a centralised recording of fraud may seem like a positive thing, allowing forces to work together, it in fact resulted in the opposite. Police forces soon weren’t being provided with information on when scammers were operating in their area. The situation was made worse in 2014 when Action Fraud was moved from National Fraud Authority to City of London Police and the NFA was scrapped altogether. This truly bizarre move meant that all reported fraud in the UK is now dealt with by one understaffed section of one police force. As investigations by Which? and The Times found, the vast majority of reported fraud cases are neither investigated or passed on to local police forces. Given Action Fraud has no investigatory powers itself this means most victims do not get their money back or receive any form of justice.
Given the rise of scamming and the woeful incompetence of the government to properly deal with it, Labour can and must step up. By committing to letting individual police forces deal with scamming rather than Action Fraud and promising to fund more police officers to be trained to deal with fraud, Labour would be sending a clear message out to the victims of crime across Britain – that they will not be forgotten.
Will Barber Taylor is a member of the Labour Party and a writer who is currently reading History at the University of Warwick.
He tweets at @WBarberTaylor.