Monday, November 25, 2013

Keeping crime down in a tough but intelligent fashion

Keeping crime down in a tough but intelligent fashion

(c)Mark Croucher 2013
'Alan', the French speaking leader of the fraudsters

Two weeks ago, a friend approached me seeking advice. She had been caught in a scam by a group of fraudsters and had lost £500 she couldn't afford. The fraudsters - 'Alan', 'John' and 'Tony' - were eager for another meeting to extract more money from her. What should she do?

As far as I could see, she had three options open to her: do nothing, go to the police or go to the press. She decided to go with the third option in the hope that her experiences would warn off other potential victims of the same scam, known as the 'wash-wash' or dirty money scam. Victims are told that cash has been smuggled into the UK dyed black to avoid problems with customs, but a special chemical is now required to wash the dye off, and this is expensive. In return for the victim financing the purchase of the chemical, they will earn a share of the proceeds. Yes, it requires a certain gullibility to fall for, and yes, it relies upon greed on the victim's part, but this is a common scam which catches many thousands of people a year.

To distil a long story into a brief summary, the next meeting between the victim and the fraudsters was set up in association with a Sunday newspaper. The hotel room was wired for audio and video, the victim wore a wire, and a team of photographers awaited the arrival of the fraudsters. One turned up on foot, and the other two in a brand new Lexus, which rather indicates just how well fraud pays nowadays.

It all worked very well. A fresh scam was convincingly explained to the victim and caught on video, while the team of photographers caught the car registration number and clear pictures of the fraudsters. When they left, they also left behind a package they claimed contained forged banknotes, several loose banknotes and a chemical tray, all of which were preserved in evidence bags because they would have the fraudsters fingerprints on them.

And this is where the interesting part begins. Ahead of publication and after considerable debate about the effects of Leveson and whether the paper would fall foul of the new press regulation regime,  they decided the matter should be reported to the police. As the victim lives close to me, I agreed to make the necessary arrangements, including attendance at a police station as we had considerable physical evidence.

I attended a SE London police station on the Tuesday evening hoping to speak to a CID officer. Instead, I found it impossible to get past the civilian desk officer, who was most keen that I report the crime to another division: the original crime did not happen in their area. They could not give me the number of the CID office I should speak to but suggested instead that I call the police non-emergency number, 101. In any case, as I was not the victim, I could not report the crime.

After over an hour, I decided that perhaps 101 was the answer so I left the first station and duly called. After almost an hour on the phone, I was assured that they would forward my details to another SE London police station - the one where the original fraud took place - and that they would be expecting myself and the victim around 12 noon the following day.

I duly arrived at the agreed station at the appointed hour with the victim. Naturally, nobody knew anything about what I'd said to the operator at '101', and so I joined the back of a large queue. Thinking to short-cut the process, I found the direct dial number for the CID office upstairs on the lobby wall and called them, explaining the situation. After 40 minutes, a bored looking plain-clothes officer came downstairs, and after explaining the circumstances to him he told me we'd have to join the queue again and report the crime to the civilian desk officer. 30 minutes later, on reaching the front of the queue, the desk officer explained that it was 'too complicated', and she would need to speak to CID. Another half an hour passed before we were eventually spoken to by a uniformed Inspector.

Of everyone we spoke to, the Inspector was the most forthcoming, and the most apologetic. He listened to our story, and then went back to CID. Nobody in CID was much interested, and when he returned, you could see the frustration on his face.

He explained that according to National Police Guidelines, police stations could no longer take reports of nor investigate cases of fraud: they all had to go through 'Action Fraud', a QUANGO which screens calls for the police. I explained that we had physical evidence to turn over, but this made no difference. As there was no prospect of an immediate arrest - the only time police are allowed to act on fraud without the permission of Action Fraud - they could do nothing. After spending two and a half hours at this police station, we left with all of our evidence. My sympathies were with the Inspector, who clearly despaired of the situation but was powerless to act.

The victim that evening called Action Fraud, explaining the circumstances. Last year, Action Fraud lost 2,500 cases due to a computer error, so my confidence was not high, and rightly so. To date, we still have all the physical evidence, and there has been no further contact from Action Fraud a week later. No crime has been recorded in relation to the fraud, and there is no crime number meaning it remains off of the crime statistics.

Meanwhile, between myself, the victim and the Sunday newspaper, we have several hundred photographs of the fraudsters, several memory cards with audio and video recordings of the fraud being explained by the fraudsters to a victim, a packet of forged banknotes, a chemical tray, several other loose banknotes and pictures of the fraudsters car, including its registration number. We also have a victim who, despite feeling incredibly stupid and knowing that her initial involvement was possibly criminal, is willing to make a statement and see the matter through to prosecution.  

After spending over 6 hours attempting to report a crime, I am still no closer to achieving what should be incredibly simple. David Cameron said last year that the government's approach to crime was to be 'tough but intelligent', and my experience of this seems broadly in line with that. Keeping crime figures down by refusing to accept reports of crime might seem intelligent to the government, but if you're a victim? Well, that's just tough.



  1. Replies
    1. Exactly nothing whatsoever. Still not even a call back from Action Fraud.

  2. If you want a challenge, try reporting an MP for a crime. I tried to report my MP for taking a bribe and was told that I wasn't allowed to report it to my local police force, I had to report it to the Met. The Met told me I had to report it to the House of Commons. The House of Commons told me I had to report it to the Met. The Met told me I had to report it to my local police force. My local police force told me I wasn't allowed to report him because he's an MP! He got away with it.

    1. Tell me more, Stuart: which MP, and what bribe!