The British public are being left at risk of fraud and victims are being failed because many forces do not consider it a priority, the police watchdog has found in a new report.
One officer told HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMICFRS) that despite people being more likely to fall victim to fraud than any other crime, it was falling behind other offences because it does not “bang, bleed or shout”.
The report warned of a “disjointed and ineffective” response across England and Wales and condemned the lack of a national strategy when some people are losing their entire life savings.
“We found some examples of good practice but, taken as a whole and given the scale of fraud, not enough is being done,” inspectors concluded. “Across police forces, regional organised crime units and national bodies, there is no clear understanding of who is responsible for fraud-related activities or what the expected level of performance is.
“Some worthwhile activities are duplicated unnecessarily; others are not carried out at all.”
HMICRS said the response was leaving “fraudsters feeling like they can act with impunity and victims feeling confused and disillusioned”.
It listed examples that “make sorry reading” and said seven out of the 11 forces inspected could not say how many fraud reports were investigated by police.
The watchdog said some forces were “seeking reasons” not to probe allegations, with one force taking no further action on 96 per cent of cases from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau – even those with strong evidence and suspects identified.
“One member of staff was quite clear that their role was to ‘reduce demand on investigators’,” the report said. “They told us, ‘if there is an excuse not to investigate it, we will use it’.”
As an alternative to prosecution, cease and desist letters have been sent to suspects to request that they stop their activities. One was sent in relation to an alleged £50,000 fraud.
The inspection found problems at all levels, with "unacceptably wide variations" in the quality of case handling, unnecessary delays and a lack of proactive targeting of fraudsters.
Despite an increase in reported frauds in the last three years, the number of cases sent to forces for investigation has reduced, the report said.
Four of the 11 forces had fewer than 10 dedicated fraud investigators and one had only two.
The inspectorate said some victims have reported losing their entire life savings to fraud, and suffered enormous psychological and emotional damage.
With an estimated 3.3 million incidents in the year to June, the crime accounted for almost a third of all offences as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales.
But one analyst told HMICFRS: "Everything is against fraud. It is not a priority, not sexy, people don't report it and it is difficult to prove, which takes time, resources and money."
The report followed warnings that government funding cuts have forced police to “prioritise” what crime they respond to.
HMICFRS said police leaders were making “difficult choices” and prioritising gun crime, drug dealing and child sexual exploitation instead.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr said: “We did find examples of local investigators providing victims with excellent service, but they are hampered by the lack of government or national policing strategies for tackling fraud. This has profound implications in how forces understand roles and responsibilities, how the public is protected from fraud and how victims of fraud are treated by police forces.”
The Police Federation said the report should be a “red flag for the government highlighting the affect its austerity policies are having on the public”.
Its chair John Apter said: “Since 2010 we have lost almost 22,000 police officers and in some parts of the country we are struggling to meet 999 call demand. Chief constables are having to make difficult decisions where to allocate the limited resources they have, and it is a sad fact that we cannot do all we once could.
“Every police officer wants to catch criminals - especially those who prey on the vulnerable which many fraudsters do - but we cannot do everything.”
Mr Apter called for “significant, centrally-funded investment from the government to ensure that victims of all type crime receive the service they need and deserve”.
But inspectors said that even with the pressures on policing, the situation was “unacceptable”.
“We are calling on the police service to make a choice,” Mr Parr said. “Either continue with the current inconsistent approach, which puts members of the public at a high risk of becoming victims of crime or look at ways to improve that will start to make a difference.”
Commander Karen Baxter, the national police coordinator for economic crime, acknowledged that improvement was needed.
“We will continue to collaborate with 43 forces to improve the policing capability and enhance, collectively, how we combat fraud,” she added. “A significant amount of work has already started to address some of the issues raised in the report.”
Ms Baxter said that fraud was “competing in the policing environment with other serious crime types such as violent crime and counter-terrorism, and the pursuit of those responsible through court is only one part of the solution”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been clear that the law enforcement response to fraud needs to improve as this type of crime can have a devastating impact on victims. We will carefully consider the HMICFRS recommendations and work closely with law enforcement to implement them.”