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'Setting the bar': the team protecting fraud and cybercrime victims

Fraud Protect Officer, Amy Horrobin and Cyber Protect Officer, Megan Haldane spoke to Police Oracle about the work they do to protect victims of crime in Avon and Somerset.

According to the National Crime Agency, fraud is the most commonly experienced crime in the UK. It’s vast, it’s costly, and police forces nationwide are striving to tackle a form of criminality that poses unique challenges.

Avon and Somerset Police is one of the first to invest in a team specifically designed to support victims and protect people against the threat of fraud and cybercrime.

Fraud Protect Officer, Amy Horrobin and Cyber Protect Officer, Megan Haldane spoke to Police Oracle about what they each do within this dedicated unit, which is part of the Serious Organised Crime Investigations Team within CID.

Amy works under the fraud umbrella, which includes the Complex Fraud Team, the Volume Fraud Team and two Fraud Protect officers.

The Vulnerable Victims of Fraud Coordinator, who provides a direct response to victims who have either reported to the police or Action Fraud, is also in this team.

Megan is part of the cyber team, which is made up of cybercrime investigators and two Cyber Protect officers.

Amy explains why these roles have been created: “At the moment, fraud equates to 41% of all crime, and 61% of that is cyber-enabled.

"But only 1% of policing resources are actually dedicated to dealing with fraud, so there's a bit of an imbalance there.

"The fraud and cyber protect roles have been introduced to help educate the public around the threat of fraud and cybercrime, to help reduce victimization.”

Fraud Protect Officer Amy Horrobin

The fraud protect role was introduced in December 2020 – and taken on by Amy – while Megan has been in her pre-existing cyber protect role since last May.

These roles have also been created because there are “investigative difficulties” unique to fraud and cybercrime which make pursuing offenders more difficult.

Stressing that neither is a form of criminality where “a victim and a perpetrator are in the one location", Amy highlights the preventative aspect of their work.

She said: “We might not be able to get to the fraudsters behind the crimes in a lot of these cases, but what we can do is get to potential victims and provide that education to keep themselves safe.”

Despite these logistical issues, Megan is clear that “we can actually make Avon and Somerset one of the most hostile environments for those criminals to work”.

The goal, she says, is that they decide not to “bother” trying to commit a crime against a potential victim who’s located in the force area.

Fraud and cybercrime are chronically underreported: only 20% of fraud is reported, a rate which drops to 6% for cybercrime.

Shame is a big factor in both, with Megan adding that “the myths associated with cybercrime” also act as a deterrent.

Cyber Protect Officer Megan Haldane

She said: “People think it’s something sophisticated and complex that they can’t protect against, they don’t always recognise that they’ve been a victim.”

Secondly, both crimes cover a wide range of offending.

According to Action Fraud, there are 52 different categories of the crime.

Amy says that although “there are common modus operandi and trends”, offending is hugely varied and sometimes hard to appropriately categorise.

While her team predominantly focuses on higher-harm areas such as romance and courier fraud, online shopping fraud is “consistently” the most reported in Avon and Somerset.

Simultaneously combatting the most harmful and the most common is the challenge.

Cybercrime broadly boils down to two types.Cyber-dependent crime is that which can’t be committed without a computer; in this category, social media hacking is the most reported offence.

Cyber-enabled crime is an ordinary crime where the scale has been made greater by the use of communication technology, which could be any number of things.

But both categories pose a high risk of repeat victimisation.The “suckers list” – essentially a database of victim details shared and sold among fraudsters – is a dangerous tool, the existence of which informs the team's response.

While there may be no such list for cybercrime, Megan says there are a “large amount of repeat victims there too, unfortunately”.

Practically, each of their roles centre around supporting and educating would be, could be and have been victims.

Fraud protect officers go out and visit the most vulnerable victims, a practice which Amy says can prove tricky if the victim is in denial and doesn’t necessarily want to engage. This is frequently a feature of romance fraud, and she and her colleague Jordan are often tasked with collating photos and documents which prove the person has fallen victim.

She said: “If there’s anything they [the victim] can send us that we can pick apart, we will do that and then turn up to the visit with a printed document of evidence.”

Sometimes it works, other times the hold of the fraudster proves too strong.

While Megan offers a similar support to victims, she also works with SMEs, charities and other organisations.

The relationship she has with the South West Resilience Centre is one of the key ones. This not-for-profit, Home Office funded facility – led by serving police officers – is a vital resource in terms of supporting SMEs, because it takes on work that policing cannot support.

The educational aspect of their roles are similar, insofar as they both run events and give talks to provide a proactive response to fraud and cybercrime.

A perk of the job is that both Amy and Megan have had opportunities to innovate.

One initiative is Project Raven, which seeks to address gift cards being used in fraud. Fraudsters, aware that a dubious bank transfer is likely to get flagged, use gift cards to avoid detection.

Amy says: “They get victims to go and buy gift cards, scratch off the back and send over the code. They then sell that gift card at 70% of the value on the dark web, so someone’s getting a bargain, and the fraudster is getting 70% of the value, but then nothing’s being flagged.”

In response to this, Amy thought: “How do we make a banking protocol but for gift cards? We need to educate the supermarkets and the shops that are selling these gift cards.”

She says they initially went into shops and explained how gift cards are used for fraud, educating owners on what to look out for, and encouraging them to refuse sale if they spot any signs.

The results were instant: “Within the first month of doing that, we had five referrals from supermarkets, and every single one of them was a victim of romance fraud that we would not have known about if they hadn’t let us know.”

Another initiative was mounted in recognition of the fact that “we are four people trying to tackle a huge problem within Avon and Somerset” .

“We cannot be everywhere at once. But what we do have is 120 lovely cadets that have to do so many hours of engagement through the year,” she said.

Megan has created a workshop where cadets come up with advice for fraud and cybercrime victims, after which they become “junior protect officers”.

She said: “They go to so many community events on the weekends, in the evenings, so much that we unfortunately can’t get to. They get all of our resources and off they go, into the wild, disseminating the knowledge that they’ve gained.”

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