Victims of fraud are being “denied justice” even as incidences of the crime multiply during the coronavirus pandemic, a watchdog has found.
HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said too many people were receiving a poor service from police officers who gave other types of crime were given priority.
The watchdog said fraud was being treated as a “low-priority or victimless crime”, despite people targeted suffering “devastation and misery”.
It added that victims were left with psychological and emotional problems, with some taking their own lives.
“The suffering felt by fraud victims cannot be overstated,” it said in a report released on Thursday.
“Most of the estimated 3.7 million incidents of fraud in England and Wales a year are not reported. Through embarrassment, shame or guilt, many victims suffer in silence.”
Official figures for the year to March showed that although other offences decreased by 19 per cent, overall levels of crime stayed the same because of a large increase in fraud and computer misuse.
Inspector Matt Parr, head of HMIC, said the scale of fraud had increased during the coronavirus pandemic and needed to be “more of a priority for police forces”.
“You are still more likely to be a victim of fraud than any other crime, but too few fraudsters are held to account,” he added.
“Overall, too many victims of fraud still receive a poor service from the police.”
Mr Parr said not enough had changed in the two years since the watchdog issued a critical report on how police handled fraud.
Not all of its 2019 recommendations were implemented and only one of five areas of improvement had been fully dealt with, he said.
HMIC found that the fundamental problem was “a disparity between the amount of work fraud creates for the police and the resources allocated to it”, which was worsened by government funding settlements that only last for a year at a time.
The report found that Action Fraud, a reporting centre run by City of London Police, had “unacceptably high” waiting times that are causing a significant number of people to hang up before their calls are answered.
It also warned that a computer system used by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was not fit for purpose, but will not be replaced until 2024.
The inspectorate found that police forces were “generally better” at identifying vulnerable fraud victims and communicating with them, but there was still confusion about how to respond to fraud reports.
It called for police bodies and the National Crime Agency to set up an effective national tasking and coordination process by 31 March next year.
Conor McGinn, Labour’s shadow security minister, said: “Fraud is so damaging to people’s lives, business and livelihoods, but the government have not done enough to address this awful issue.
“What we need now is a comprehensive, joined-up strategy across the government to deal with this increasing crime, which Labour has long been calling for. Time for action, not more warm words.”
Angela McLaren, the assistant commissioner of City of London Police, said: “We welcome this report, which builds on and recognises the work undertaken by policing as a result of the 2018 report, at a time where many chief constables have had to make difficult choices with limited resources.
“But there is always more to do and we will continue to work closely with police forces, other law enforcement agencies and private industry to protect the public from criminals intent on stealing their money or identity.”
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