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Public health approach key to improving 'inadequate' response to fraud

The office of West Midlands PCC Simon Foster commissioned a group of professors at Cardiff University to investigate the possibility of implementing a public health approach to fraud.

West Midlands PCC Simon Foster believes there is a "clear need for an end to end overhaul of the way fraud is dealt with" across the criminal justice system which reflects the fact that it now makes up 40% of all crime in the UK.

This overhaul centres around the development of a 'public health approach' to tackling fraud which, alongside policing, prioritises prevention and partnership working.

PCC Foster said the West Midlands (WM) is already moving towards this approach, after a report commissioned by his office and conducted by Cardiff University found this to be the best way forward. 

He wrote in the foreword: "We need robust policing and enforcement to tackle fraud. However, we also need prevention and partnership. Prevention, because the prevention of fraud will always be better than having to deal with the consequences of fraud. 

"Partnership, because we need collaboration and joint working, globally, nationally and regionally, within the public and private sectors and across the entire spectrum of the criminal justice system, because policing cannot tackle fraud on its own."

The report makes eight recommendations on how to introduce a public health approach in the WM, covering areas such as governance, education and large-scale frauds, all of which PCC Foster intends to implement.

Despite their specificity to the region, he says the recommendations are "as equally applicable to other police force areas".

This is in part because, as highlighted by the researchers, the current policing landscape further amplifies why prevention and partnership should be prioritised when it comes to tackling fraud.

According to the report, that less than 1% of WMP officers and staff serve in the Economic Crime Unit, despite fraud being the fifth highest crime recorded by the force.

This mismatched resourcing is a national theme, as is the attrition rate. According to the latest public Action Fraud (AF) data, 37,951 fraud and cybercrime referrals were made to Home Office forces between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020 (11.6% of all AF reports).

Of these referrals, a total of 6,363 (16.7%) resulted in a judicial outcome. 

The report found: 'Overall, less than 1% of all fraud reported to AF is likely to end up being subject to a WMP investigation that leads to a judicial outcome.

'The criminal justice attrition – affected by low police fraud resources and capabilities – provides ample justification for arguing that the focus must be on prevention and reducing harm and damage, both to victims and to perceptions of how fraud is policed.'

However, it was stressed that prevention should still be the focus - even if there was greater resource and less attrition. 

In terms of the recommendations, the report concluded that PCC Foster's office coordinating a public health approach in the WM is 'central to reform'.

With respect to education, it was recommended that fraud awareness be incorporated within primary and secondary schools, and that greater support be provided to SMEs and charities on the specific frauds which may affect them.

Another recommendation was that those who work with the most vulnerable - such as care workers - be trained to pass on concerns to appropriate agencies.

The researchers also recommended that a public campaign, featuring existing guidance and campaigns, be undertaken on the high-volume fraud categories.

More broadly, they asked that consideration be given to introducing a larger capability for reactive investigation of large-scale frauds (potentially in combination with other forces).

The report found: 'If there were several such large scale cases (including crypto/investment frauds) simultaneously or overlapping, it is not clear that England and Wales (let alone the West Midlands police) currently has the capacity and capability to deal with them, given the length of time they take and the resources they consume.'

It was suggested that this could be done in a number of ways, including by expanding economic crime teams within ROCUs, the Serious Fraud Office, or the City of London Police (among others).

The researchers also explored the idea of this larger capability taking the form of a future body created in response to what they said is widely acknowledged as the ‘fraud policing deficit’.

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