Fraudsters face UK's extremely thin blue line

Simon Evans
Sunday 24 May 2009 00:00 BST

Sections of Britain's police force are woefully ill-equipped to deal with fraud, according to figures obtained by the Independent on Sunday under the Freedom of Information Act.

Despite estimates suggesting that the UK can expect as much as £20bn worth of fraudulent activity this year, a number of constabularies retain no specialist fraud officers.

Following a request to the Home Office asking how many officers in Britain are specifically tasked to deal with fraud, records show that the Essex constabulary does not employ a single specialist officer. A spokesman for Essex police said: "Such investigations will be picked up by officers on division, for example CID, and this may explain the zero return you received. We have no specific unit but we have at least one officer who has dealt with plenty of fraud cases in the past."

The latest figures, for the period ending 31 March 2008, also make grim reading for other parts of the UK. North Yorkshire, Hertfordshire and Lancashire also have no officers directly tasked with dealing with fraud. A spokesman for Hertfordshire police said: "Every frontline officer deals with fraud on a local level. If the case is more complex, then local crime units will investigate."

The report shows that 788 police officers are tasked with dealing with fraud cases across the country, although the figure includes police officers in supporting roles which experts say grossly inflates the true picture.

A former fraud officer serving with the City of London police said: "There is plenty of massaging of the figures going on there. There is simply no way there are that many police officers dealing with fraud in the UK. You can chop a couple of hundred off that number. In some parts of the UK fraudsters must be laughing their socks off.

"The average policeman will likely pass on a fraud elsewhere rather than properly investigate. They simply don't have sufficient understanding most of the time."

Other parts of the UK that have low level fraud defences include Wales, where the Home Office says just 15 "full time equivalent officers who predominantly investigate fraud cases" are employed. Other regional black spots include Suffolk, which employs two full-time equivalent fraud officers, while the Hampshire force employs a single fraud officer.

London has more than 300 officers specifically dealing with fraud, while the better resourced regional constabularies include the West Midlands, which employs 44 officers, Greater Manchester, which employs 28 people and West Yorkshire which has 46 fraud officers on its books.

One serving police officer said "most officers simply don't fancy fraud. There are better, and crucially much quicker, ways to get collars. You can chase blind alleys for a hell of a long time."

The Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, recently unveiled the Government's latest attempt at tackling fraud with the creation of the National Fraud Strategic Authority which will largely seek to improve knowledge sharing across the country. She described the £14m body as an "emphatic response" to the threat of fraud, although one serving officer described is as "laughable".

Fraud on such things as mortgages and credit cards costs the average Briton more than £200 each year. According to figures from the Federation of Small Business, more than half of its members claim to have been the victim of fraudsters in the past year costing on average £800. However, it is believed that a large percentage of frauds go unreported as many victims believe the police will fail to properly investigate cases.

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