In this post I am going to talk about Action Fraud – but seeing as this is a Trading Standards blog, I will try and discuss issues that are relevant to Trading Standards.
There is some overlap in the work that the Police do in relation to fraud and the work Trading Standards do. Although we do not directly enforce the law around fraud, some of the businesses we deal with may have committed fraud offences. In these cases we can prosecute for fraud as well as Trading Standards specific legislation. An example of this might be a rogue trader who has misled a homeowner about the necessity of work carried out at their home.
This week Action Fraud were in the news for various reasons. One reason was the apparent unprofessionalism of some of their staff but the other, more important reason, was whether they were misleading people about what would happen to their crime reports (i.e. whether the Police would investigate).
Firstly let us look at some background points
1 – Action Fraud (run by City of London Police) is simply a centre for people to report fraud. The idea is that there is so much fraud that it makes sense have it recorded on one database. This would allow trends to be identified.
Trading Standards operate a similar system for reporting complaints via the Citizens Advice Consumer Service (i.e. a national database).
The theory is that if all of the information is held by local Police or Trading Standards it is much harder to identify persistent offenders and identify all the offences they are committing.
In my view, a national database for this type of crime is definitely the right thing and there have been many occasions we have identified cross border/national offending using such databases.
2 – Once the data is on the Action Fraud database, the National Intelligence Fraud Bureau (NFIB) then decide what happens with it. What the media reporting shows is that a lot of fraud reports are not investigated. The NFIB use various criteria for deciding what will be investigated and that is then sent onto the local Police force to investigate. I am not aware of what the criteria is.
3 – You simply cannot get away from the fact that we do not have enough Police resources to investigate every single report of fraud. So the question is, what do you focus on? The highest losses? The most vulnerable victims? Most prolific offenders?
Fraud can often we complex and time consuming to investigate. So although there are many reports of victims handing a dossier over to the Police of all the information, that does not mean it will be a quick and easy prosecution.
To give you an example, we recently asked a bank to tell us where a victim’s cheque was cashed (so we could identify who received the money) – it took 6 months to get a response.
4 – One of the issues raised by the media is whether Action Fraud are making it clear to people whether their reports are actually going to be investigated. To be fair to Action Fraud, it is not their job to decide whether it will be investigated or not – that is up to NFIB.
I have had a look at the Action Fraud website and although it explains what it does, it does not make it explicitly clear for the average person that not all reports will be investigated. I am not sure what is actually said on the phone to the complainant though.
Final point in relation to Action Fraud and NFIB – in the past when we have been investigating suspects we have obtained useful information from NFIB which we would never have been able to access if there was not a single database (i.e. people had reported to Action Fraud but not Trading Standards). Unfortunately we do not have access to the NFIB database, which is a shame as I am sure Trading Standards could identify all sorts of activity that we could potentially get involved with – because many of the fraud reports would be against businesses.
So how does this relate to Trading Standards?
Where I work, and the majority of other Trading Standards departments I suspect, operate in a similar way. We have a huge database of thousands of complaints but the fact is we cannot investigate every single complaint. We don’t have the staff to do so. How do we decide what to pursue? Well some factors are:
– is there is risk to people (e.g. dangerous products being sold products)
– has there been a serious effect on the victim (e.g. a big financial loss)
– is the suspect a repeat offender or someone who has been advised previously
– is the victim vulnerable or is the offending targeting vulnerable people (usually people who cannot defend their own rights)
– is there another organisation best placed to deal with it (e.g. another regulator)
– is there a risk to animals (i.e. disease on farms)
– is the matter an enforcement priority as set by the council (e.g. doorstep crime)
What this all means is that a lot things reported to us do not directly get investigated. Are the complainants informed? I am not sure. The Citizens Advice Consumer Service is supposed to tell people that their details are being passed to Trading Standards. Each Trading Standards can tell Citizens Advice what will and will not be investigated so Citizens Advice should inform the complainant accordingly. I believe most Trading Standards are set up to say that we will only contact you if we need further information (which means you should not assume the matter will be investigated).
Finally – you should still report crimes – it is useful information that will identify trends. In Trading Standards if we receive complaints about a business that shows trends it will be more likely that they will be dealt with and even if we do not directly get in touch with you, that does not mean we have not raised concerns with or investigated the business. I have so many examples of where we may have received 10 complaints about a business but once we have gone in to investigate, identified lots more victims. In my experience people do not report things enough so I would hate for people to report less simply because they think nothing may be done.