Fraud is everywhere. Fraud is ubiquitous and part of everyday life – Black Friday has historically seen cyberattacks spike by 275%. It’s also going nowhere, given the scale of the problem, and surprisingly little has actually been done about it. Fraud has become almost commonplace: it’s largely considered an infuriating and—as long as you don’t fall for it—inconsequential crime.
But even if you don’t “fall for it,” the idea that fraud is just a part of everyday life is very problematic. This perception that it’s an invisible crime means it’s consistently underestimated – a sentiment echoed by the UK Police, Fire and Rescue Services Inspectorate in 2019: “Fraud doesn’t bang, bleed or shout”.
However, it is the largest single category of crime in the UK and is being investigated and prosecuted, according to the ONS (41%). Between 2021 and 2022, of the 987,000 recorded fraud offenses, a staggering 4,816 of them were ultimately charged – or a 0.4% sentencing rate.
When you are robbed, the only person responsible is the person who robbed you. It was clear that it was physical and the victims had no part in allowing the robbers to take their bags. And the fraud equivalent is that the victim may not have asked the robber to show up, but when they do, they will open the bag and let them take all the money.
While figuring out how to ignore fraud is an important part of modern technology-driven life, avoidance is never as effective as prevention.
This is because, first of all, fraud involving victims being tricked into handing over money is just one type of fraud among many. Therefore, assuming this “consumer responsibility” framework is not only misguided in principle, but also wrong in practice, since there is not always an obvious “consumer”. This is evidenced by the recent discovery that the government has been defrauded of an estimated £6.7bn during the pandemic. Second, fraud is rapidly becoming sophisticated, and avoiding it will soon no longer be as simple as ignoring fraudulent text.
Third, fraud involves far more computing technology than many people imagine. Before they reach consumers, they have broken the law and employed clearly intrusive methods. If you’ve been the recipient of a fraudulent text message or email, it’s not just a scammer who’s just trying their luck with every phone number they can find. Even relatively simple frauds require fraudsters to bypass telcos, web hosting providers and technology platforms.
The instigator of the sudden emergence of this scam? technology. According to Action Fraud, 80% of reported fraud is online fraud. Fraud has become one of many problems proliferating as society rapidly digitizes, and policy responses have been mediocre at best. Technology has not only increased the chances of fraud, but it has also added complexity.
The longer I work on policy, the more I feel that the relationship between the government-commissioned report and the policy is inversely proportional. Essentially, the more government reports, the less policy is implemented. Fraud is an obvious example. Since 2016, at least 11 reports from commissions and publicly funded organizations have focused on fraud in some way. However, the number of fraud offenses has increased by more than 50% since 2016 – from 605,949 to 936,276, according to the ONS.
Policy oversight is structural, regulatory and technical. The complexity of the organizations responsible for the fraud creates a government accountability vacuum. While it is true that greater accountability and stronger enforcement are needed, it will only get them so far: a better strategy is also needed to incentivize too much private industry to allow fraud to be committed.
It is impossible for policymakers to think about the future of a safe society without thinking about the huge problem of fraud. This is another policy issue that needs to be fundamentally rethought due to the technological revolution, not just organizational tinkering and reporting.