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Europe's pounds 50bn-a-year fraudsters 'threaten economic prosperity'

Europe's fraud gangs are hauling in up to pounds 50bn each year and are threatening the EU's economic prosperity, an investigation sponsored by the European Commission has found.

Sophisticated computer-based frauds perpetrated against insurance companies, banks, investment firms and public agencies rival the narcotics trade in scale, according to the report.

It follows a year-long investigation by accountants and management consultants Deloitte and Touche.

The study identifies 10 of the most worrying forms of hi-tech crimes, including mobile phone cloning, thought to be growing at the rate of 40 per cent a year. Credit card and other banking frauds, counterfeiting of branded goods and pharmaceuticals, fraudulent investment schemes, smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol to evade customs duties, fraudulent bankruptcy and insurance cheating are all cited as highly profitable areas for corrupt individuals or organised criminal networks to exploit.

Cloning of mobile phones, where the identity of one phone is programmed into another at the expense of the original owner, is costing the UK alone almost pounds 100m a year, the report says. The insurance industry, meanwhile, is losing at least pounds 6bn a year and the report suggests that around half of all commercial fire claims in the UK may involve arson.

There is evidence to suggest that in many cases proceeds from these illegal claims are transferred abroad. Private corporations most susceptible to losses from fraud tend to have a certain profile, according to the evidence gathered by Deloitte and Touche. They frequently have a dominant chief executive, a secretive management culture and fail to maintain systems for keeping track of data and documentation.

Differences in the laws of the EU member states and the absence of any effective judicial co-operation are blamed in the report for allowing trans-frontier fraud to thrive.

"There is clear evidence determined fraudsters deliberately and cynically manipulate and take advantage of the different regulatory and monitoring regimes across the European Union.... This problem must be tackled on an international basis," said Will Inglis of Deloitte and Touche.

Brussels will use the findings to call for the harmonisation of anti- crime legislation, for example on the seizure of illegal assets and criminal proceeds or the penalties attaching to fraud, which vary widely.

In some jurisdictions there is not even a legal definition of fraud. The European Commission has no direct powers to combat fraud-related activities but would gain the right to initiate legislation if proposals to bring judicial co-operation under the scope of the EU treaty are agreed at the Amsterdam summit in June.

The report suggests that common EU standards on banking secrecy and the anonymous ownership of corporations as well as the criminalisation of all the components of fraudulent activities are required.

Lax controls by any one EU member state adversely affects others, it stresses.

Luxembourg, for example, is frequently used as an entry point for pirated CDs which are then distributed throughout the Community.