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Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2022


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what advice they provide to people, particularly the elderly, who are targeted by scammers; how such advice is accessed; and at what cost.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Morrow, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, fraud awareness-raising activity takes place across government, law enforcement and the private and charity sectors. The Government provide free advice to the public online and via communications campaigns, including from Action Fraud, the Financial Conduct Authority’s ScamSmart, National Trading Standards’s Friends Against Scams, and the National Cyber Security Centre’s Cyber Aware.

I thank the Minister for his response. Unfortunately, I have in the past had to assist some who have been victims of such vile crimes, having been scammed out of considerable sums of money. Therefore, I am too aware of the trauma this causes. Does he agree that banks need to accept more responsibility when their clients have lost money from their accounts—sometimes their whole life savings—to these ruthless scammers?

I absolutely agree. I also point out that banks are heavily involved with the awareness campaigns. Many noble Lords will no doubt have seen a recent advert put out by Santander to stop scammers which features Ant and Dec, when they are not busy in the jungle. Also, the Scams Prevention and Support Programme, delivered by Age UK and funded by Lloyds Bank, is aimed at older people and helps them to spot and understand scams, and to take action to protect themselves from becoming a scam victim. Of course, I also agree that it is emotionally devastating to be a victim of these crimes.

My Lords, today the National Audit Office published a report on fraud, which says in terms that the Government do not have the data they need to understand the full scale of the problem and are unable accurately to measure the impact of their own policies on this growing area of crime, which is 41% of crime in this country. A spokesperson for the Government said, as we can expect:

“This government is absolutely committed to cracking down on fraud and economic crime”

and that the NAO’s recommendations will be “reflected” in the “upcoming fraud strategy”. What on earth use is a fraud strategy based on data that is now six years old?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: the Home Office is leading work on a fraud strategy. The Prime Minister referred to it in the other place as recently as 2 November. We intend to publish on that shortly. It will consider all the possible tools required to go after fraudsters and to protect those who are most vulnerable. The strategy’s other aims will be to stop and block frauds being carried out, and to improve law enforcement. Considerable money is being invested in improving data collection, as well as law enforcement capability.

My Lords, of the £580 million taken from people through authorised push payment scams last year, less than half was reimbursed to victims. Banks say that people should be more careful, but this is unacceptable given the sophistication of these schemes and how rife they are. Will the Government replace the voluntary industry code on authorised push payments with a statutory code, including an obligation to reimburse victims unless there is clear evidence that they are at fault?

My Lords, I have slightly different figures for the number of victims who were reimbursed. I am told that up to the year ending June 2022, 71% of victims got fully reimbursed. On the code to which the noble Lord referred, in 2021 the Payment Systems Regulator consulted on further measures to combat APP fraud. It proposed that all payment service providers must reimburse victims of APP scams where the victim is found not to have been grossly negligent. It is also worth pointing out some other legislative activity. In November 2021, the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury announced that the Government would remove any legislative barriers through the Financial Services and Markets Bill to enable the regulator to act to make reimbursement mandatory. That Bill is currently in Committee, and the PSR is currently consulting further on the mechanism for reimbursement.

My Lords, this really is not good enough. The National Audit Office issued a helpful report five years ago on fraudulent scammers, which has been ignored by successive Ministers and Secretaries of State. This second devastating report, which my noble friend Lord Browne referred to, has found “limited” action taken by the Home Office to tackle a crime that is profoundly impactful on nearly 4 million people every year at a cost of £4.7 billion. Fewer than 5,000 prosecutions were launched last year. Many of the victims of this terrible crime are elderly. When is the Home Office going to re-examine its priorities and come up with a proper and effective plan that genuinely protects people from scammers, which our party and the National Audit Office have been demanding for the past seven years?

As I have already said, the National Audit Office report is going to inform the new fraud strategy. I reassure noble Lords that this is taken incredibly seriously. Alongside the fraud strategy that is due to be published shortly, we are providing more than £10 million to the City of London Police to upgrade Action Fraud, which has come under some criticism in the past. Next year, a new user-friendly and accessible reporting tool and website will be launched, offering an improved experience for victims and simpler pathways to access further support and guidance. Overall, £400 million is being allocated to economic crime, of which £100 million is being spent on the prevention of fraud.

My Lords, I have been privileged to be a member of your Lordships’ Fraud Act 2006 and Digital Fraud Committee which reported on Friday. I commend the report to the Minister and hope he has read it. One of the findings, which I think surprised all of us, is that it is not in fact the elderly who are most at risk from fraud but young people, who are also at risk of becoming money-laundering mules. Will the Government consider strengthening financial education for primary and secondary school children to equip them with the tools they need to stop being victims?

The noble Lord is quite right: in the year to March 2022 people aged over 75 were less likely to be a victim of fraud than those aged between 16 and 74. He makes an extremely good point and I will take it back to the Department for Education.

My Lords, the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, referred states that

“all people have the capacity to become victims of fraud, regardless of perceived vulnerability.”

The House needs to understand that financial crime destroys lives and destroys families. Will the Government give an unambiguous commitment to include protection against financial harm in the Online Safety Bill?

My Lords, I have already outlined some of the legislative work going on, and I am not going to unequivocally commit to doing anything in other Bills at the moment. I will go on to one other point which perhaps refers to the previous question: one of the more effective tools at the moment is Friends Against Scams, to which I referred in my opening Answer. It is run by National Trading Standards and encourages people to educate others about fraud. People sign up, do an online training course and then share it. More than 1 million people have signed up. That sort of work is very valuable.

My Lords, my noble friend has rightly said that there is quite a lot of information online if you think you have been subject to fraud. Some of those sites encourage you to report a suspicious email or text, but do not do any more than that except say that they will remove it for you. What more can we do to direct people to websites that can actually help people who feel they have been a victim of fraud?

The National Cyber Security Centre launched its suspicious email reporting service to remove harmful scams online, and it is seeing high levels of success. As of October 2022 it had taken down more than 105,000 scams across 192,000 URLs. Another thing that the Government have done is the National Economic Crime Centre’s department dedicated to ensuring consistency of messaging. I will make sure it is aware of my noble friend’s suggestion.

My Lords, for many years I was chairman of PayPal Europe. Working with the global head of security, I tried extremely hard to engage the British Government on this issue. With the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the law enforcement authorities, there was absolutely no traction whatever. No real interest was taken in it. Can the Government now reliably estimate the enormous scale of online fraud, then a contagion and now an epidemic? To what degree are the Government bearing down on the offenders, who operate globally as well as nationally? Can the Minister tell us how many scammers were successfully prosecuted for online fraud in the last year for which figures are available?

I am afraid I cannot. I will endeavour to find the appropriate statistic. There is a problem about the collection of statistics—the noble Lord, Lord Browne, referred to it earlier—which is to do with differences of collection across the four nations, I am afraid. However the noble Lord, Lord Birt, is quite right: it is obviously a serious proportion of crime. I reassure noble Lords once again that the Government are taking this very seriously. As I said earlier, on 2 November the Prime Minister led on this.