Reported cases of fraud have risen dramatically, with conmen and women failing to be deterred by lenient sentences, a study has found.
The accountants BDO Stoy Hayward found greed rather than need was the motivation for the more serious cases in its report, where the amount defrauded was more than £50,000.
Debt was the reason behind 11 per cent of cases last year and divorce, 4 per cent. The desire to enjoy a lavish lifestyle was the reason behind 60 per cent of the crimes.
The total value of fraud in cases last year more than doubled, from £331m in 2003 to £756m. That excluded two large cases that would have skewed the statistics - a plot to steal £3.3bn using forged gold certificates that was foiled by the Metropolitan Police and an alleged £1bn conspiracy to fix horse races involving the gambling website, Betfair.
The typical jail sentence for fraudsters stealing more than £1m was three years and four months, while frauds involving more than £50,000 resulted in an average sentence of two years and three months. Large frauds in the US can lead to sentences of up to 20 years, BDO said.
Andrew Durant, the report's author and a fraud specialist, said: "The deterrent is not there. The fraudster thinks he might as well take the chance. What's the worst-case scenario? A couple of years inside."
He said that fraud destroyed businesses and livelihoods, butthere was only a small chance of getting caught in the crime. A survey last year by the consultancy RSM Robson Rhodes found fraud was costing the economy more than £40bn a year.
Mr Durant said: "People start off small and once they've got away with it, the fraud gets bigger. There are some extremely wealthy individuals committing fraud."
Nearly 90 per cent of cases with fraud of more than £50,000 involved men, who spent the money on cars, holidays, gadgets and houses, while women tended to go for jewellery or holidays. Women were, however, increasingly becoming involved in the larger frauds, BDO said.
While "identity theft" has attracted publicity, it tended to involve sums of less than £50,000. Mr Durant said fraud was increasing partly because organised crime was getting involved "in a big way" - its favoured tactics include benefits fraud and "phishing" scams. In these, consumers are sent fake e-mails purporting to be from their banks and are asked to log in through a link taking them to a fake website which records their user name and password details.
Among last year's cases that resulted in longer-than-average sentences was that of a brewery debt collector who siphoned off £1.6m to fund a lifestyle of travel, luxury cars and designer clothes. He claimed that he had done it because he was "saving for a rainy day, andwas jailed for four-and-a-half years.
Some high-profile cases that led to convictions last year were not included in the report, as the crime surfaced before 2004. Joyti De-Laurey, a former secretary at the City investment bank Goldman Sachs, was jailed for seven years for stealing £4.5m from her bosses' personal bank accounts. Carl Cushnie, formerly Britain's richest black businessman, was jailed for six years for conspiracy to defraud, relating to a private company, Versailles Traders, which he set up.