Chair: Dr Janice Goldstraw-White
Bernadette Lawrie – Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officer. Operation Signature, Sussex and Surrey Specialist Crime Command
Lisa Mills – Senior Fraud Manager, Victim Support West Sussex
Bernadette Lawrie opens by firstly detailing the work she has been involved in working for Sussex and Surrey police force with Operation Signature. She explained that after a visit to an elderly gentleman in 2010, who had been defrauded of £100,000 and did not realise he had been a victim (in fact it was the Post Office who brought it to police attention), on further investigation it was uncovered that his son had previously reported the crime to the police, but they had not deemed him as a victim. As a result of this, she outlined that Operation Signature was introduced essentially to change the mindset of people so that fraud is not viewed as a victimless crime and that people need to be safeguarded against it. Bernadette stated that they started to introduce simple safeguarding procedures like cutting off phone numbers, changing email addresses, redirecting mail, and going to customer services to cut off the contact from the victim. At the same time, they tried to change the terminology around such frauds, recognising that the most vulnerable have the greatest losses and are impacted most. As a result of their work, in 2017 she said that the National Police Chiefs Council adopted Operation Signature as a standard operation and this has been rolled out nationally in various forms since, with the overall aim of identifying vulnerability at the first point of contact. Bernadette stated that if you are a victim of fraud, you are 80% more likely to be re-victimised or re-targeted if you change nothing, and for some that may just mean simple practical changes, whereas for others they may need support for more behavioural changes. She said as a result of their work across Sussex and Surrey, they now have wealth of data they can access to help identify victims, what types of frauds are on the increase, hotspots, and payments being made. This has allowed the force and other services to react accordingly and raise awareness to the public in general.
Lisa Mills outlined how her Victim Support team in Sussex has worked very closely as part of Operation Signature since 2016, primarily providing continuing support to vulnerable victims of fraud. She explained that each of those victims will receive tailored support from a caseworker like herself. She pointed out that for some individuals, it is not always clear where to go for help and support, but Operation Signature has standard procedures for this and makes access and signposting easier. Like Bernadette, Lisa also spoke about the narratives we use relating to fraud and gave the example that people often say that people ‘fall for’ fraud, but this would never be said for someone who was a victim of burglary or other crimes. She outlined the importance of being mindful about the language we use about fraud, as this impacts negatively on victims, not only adding to their embarrassment and shame, but also affecting whether they report the fraud or not. Lisa explained how being a victim of fraud can have a permanent impact on a person’s life going forwards – the trust of others can be permanently destroyed, along with the sense of a future life lost, especially if they have been defrauded of a substantial amount of money. She outlined that Victim Support look to try and validate the experience of fraud, while at the same time giving an honest appraisal (along with policing colleagues) of the likely judicial outcome and to manage victim expectations around that. She also noted that one innovation in her area had been the setting up of a peer support group for romance fraud about two years ago, and many had found this beneficial. She concluded by reminding us that fraudsters are constantly evolving in their methods and tactics, and we all have a responsibility to try and protect victims and the vulnerable. She acknowledged there is still more to be done but feels in the last six years they have made great strides in Sussex along with the police, to produce a high standard of service.
In summary, the discussions in this webinar certainly demonstrate that the damage to victims from fraud extends way beyond just financial harm, and often results in longer term emotional or psychological impacts affecting the future lives of individuals. However, in the last few years the police and other support organisations have made substantial progress in not only recognising these crimes and harms, but also identifying those most vulnerable, so that they can be better protected from such incidents. Greater public education and awareness has helped to achieve this, so too has the attempt to change the narrative relating to fraud so that it is seen like any other volume crime committed against a person. But victim expectations have to be managed and this is a difficult area. Often victims get listened to, acknowledgment of being defrauded, and help to put some safeguarding in place to avoid future victimisation, rather than being able to bring a perpetrator to justice and getting their money back. Successful prosecutions for fraudulent acts sadly are still extremely low. The public are encouraged to be vigilant, if something looks ‘too good to be true’, it probably is, and don’t make assumptions who you are dealing with, especially over the phone or online, but also take personal responsibility for your actions and reach out to the resources available to minimise the risk of being defrauded.
Dr Janice Goldstraw-White
31st March 2023