Sentences for fraud too short, judges told

Image of fraud as a victimless crime is false, says sentencing council

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Thursday 26 February 2009 01:00

White-collar fraudsters whose crimes cost the country billions of pounds each year should be given long prison sentences, the body which advises judges said yesterday.

The tough recommendations by the Sentencing Guidelines Council will act as a spur to prosecutors to seek hefty penalties in the courts. But the council said judges should consider starting points of four-year prison sentences, reflecting the "prevalence" of benefit, payment card and bank frauds.

The cost of fraud in the UK, including costs of detection and prosecution, is estimated at about £20bn a year, or £330 for every man, woman and child.

This week the former director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald QC, said the system for City crime had broken down.

The Attorney General, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, is also reported to be planning to give Crown Courts tougher powers to punish fraudsters, including higher sentences, and a formalised system of plea bargaining, or plea negotiation.

Sir Christopher Pitchford, a council member, said: "Fraud is not a victimless crime. Economic crime, including the bills for detection and prosecution, is a huge burden on the economy. It is not just financial institutions that are targeted; individuals can lose their businesses and life savings. Fraud can be used to fund organised crime."

And he warned: "Offenders are using ever-more sophisticated ways to commit fraud and this guideline offers advice to sentencers on the use of computers and technology to create and disseminate articles for use in fraud. For the most extensive such frauds, the council proposes a starting point of four years in custody."

Yesterday the Sentencing Guidelines Council warned that using the identities of living persons can "cause emotional distress for individuals who face the stressful problems of untangling the financial consequences of fraud".

This week it emerged that the Justice Secretary Jack Straw was targeted by Nigerian internet criminals who sent email demands to hundreds of the Blackburn MP's contacts, claiming that he had lost his wallet in Africa and needed $3,000 to get home.

Judges, who will be given advice on dealing with fraudsters' computer techniques, were advised that cyber-fraud sentences should be between two and seven years custody for an extensive and skilfully-planned fraud.

The guideline provides comprehensive advice on a wide range of fraud offences including new offences introduced by the Fraud Act 2006 which provides for maximum sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment.

Judges are also advised to give heavier sentences to fraudsters and tricksters who prey on vulnerable victims. The guideline highlights the victims of "advance-fee" cons, which defraud with promises of prizes or windfalls.

"It is a feature of some advance-fee frauds that victims are targeted using 'sucker lists' of people who have previously fallen victim to scams. An offender who uses a 'sucker list' will have planned the offence and deliberately targeted vulnerable victims; therefore he or she has a higher level of culpability," the guideline advises.

The consultation guideline has been sent to Mr Straw and to the Commons Justice Select Committee. The consultation ends on 15 May.