Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
Almost six months ago, I wrote to you – alongside the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, and the Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed – asking what action you were taking to tackle the fraud epidemic that has swept our country in recent years.
Exactly five months ago today, you replied to our letter promising “shortly” to publish “a long-term fraud strategy”, with plans to “stop fraud, empower potential victims, and pursue the worst offenders”. The Prime Minister made the same commitment a week earlier, telling Parliament he would “shortly publish our fraud strategy to block more scams and better protect the public.”
Five months on, the country is still waiting for you and the Prime Minister to keep your promises, and publish that strategy. During that time, based on the most recent official figures available, another 1.5 million fraud offences will have been committed against members of the public in England and Wales, just over a quarter of which will have been recorded as crimes by the police, and only 1 in 200 of which – at best – will result in a criminal charge.
That is the current reality of Britain’s most commonly experienced crime. At least 10,000 offences are committed every day against working people and pensioners in our communities, for some destroying everything they have worked for all their lives, and yet the parasites who are stealing their wages and savings simply move on to their next round of victims with near total impunity.
Meanwhile, the basic questions we put to you last October about the scale and nature of this crisis remain unanswered. You still cannot tell us how much the UK is currently losing to fraud across all sectors of our economy, you still cannot tell us what proportion of that total is being perpetrated from overseas, and you still cannot tell us how much of that fraud is driven by organised crime.
It is hard to know what is worse: the lack of interest from the government in understanding this epidemic, or the lack of action to tackle it. When Kwasi Kwarteng last year described fraud as not being the sort of crime that “people experience in their daily lives”, it was not a slip of the tongue, but a confession of wilful neglect, a blind eye deliberately turned so that Tory politicians can maintain the fiction that crime has come down in our country over the last 13 years.
That much was confirmed last year when the former counter-fraud minister, Lord Agnew, resigned his post in protest at Rishi Sunak’s decision to write off billions lost to fraudsters during the Covid pandemic. The Treasury, Lord Agnew said, “appears to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society”, and the government as a whole was frozen in its efforts to tackle the crisis by “a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance.”
Last month, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee echoed those words in their own devastating report on the lack of coordination, leadership and action to tackle fraud across various departments, repeating the criticism first made by the Royal United Services Institute in January 2021, that – under this government – fraud is “everyone’s problem but no-one’s responsibility.”
That cannot go on. Far too many lives in Britain are being ruined every day, and far too many criminals around the world are growing rich at our expense, for you to delay your promised strategy any longer. We need a comprehensive assessment of the scale of fraud across every sector of our economy, we need a whole-government plan for how it will be tackled, we need clear lines of accountability over how it will be delivered, and we need all of that as a matter of urgency.
But there is also one step that the government can and should take immediately, and on which you will have the full support of the Labour Party if you agree to our proposed action.
I am sure you, like me, have been watching the BBC series ‘Scam Interceptors’ with a sense of horror at the sheer size, sophistication and ruthlessness of the global scamming industry, and its disproportionate targeting of UK households. When Ofcom revealed in October 2021 that 45 million people in the UK had been targeted by scam calls or texts that summer, those numbers seemed impossibly large, but watching ‘Scam Interceptors’, it is clear they are all too real.
However, it is also clear from the series that phone scamming gangs based overseas depend on two things above all when targeting UK consumers: the capacity to make vast volumes of phone calls using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) systems; and the ability to ‘spoof’ those calls so that they are displayed on people’s mobile phones or digital landlines as being made from the UK.
The reason for this was made clear in research published by Ofcom in August 2022: 82% of mobile phone users and 79% of landline users said they would usually or always check the number calling their phone before deciding whether to answer; and – while 61% said they were very unlikely to answer an international number that they did not recognise – that figure fell to 25% if they were being called by an unrecognised UK mobile or landline number.
As you will know, Ofcom conducted that research prior to announcing new controls on the use of VOIP calls and spoofing services in November, many of which are due to take effect in May. Those new controls are of course welcome, and should have a particular impact on the spoofing of recognised UK numbers to make fraudulent calls, such as the current scam to which the Ministry of Justice alerted the public on 31 March, which spoofs the MOJ’s own public enquiries helpline.
However, the Labour Party believes that Ofcom’s new controls on overseas scam calls do not go far enough, and indeed do not go as far as Ofcom themselves had originally signalled when they first consulted UK phone networks on the plans in October 2021. In particular, the new rules due to take effect next month appear to leave two major loopholes for fraudsters to exploit:
- From 15 May, network providers will be required to identify numbers which do not uniquely identify the caller and block these calls, but nothing in that requirement appears to prevent scammers continuing to buy up legitimate UK numbers that are ‘in service’ and using them to establish phone contact with potential victims, exactly as they do at present; and
- A general exemption will remain in place for calls from UK users roaming abroad (and mobile users in the Crown Dependencies), identified by the +447 prefix, which – while necessary for those users – will mean that any scammers able to purchase genuine UK mobile numbers for spoofing purposes can make as many calls as they want to the UK using a robo-dialler based overseas, already one of the most common practices used by fraud gangs based overseas.
To close off the remaining loopholes, and put in place the most stringent controls possible against scam calls from overseas, we would propose two straightforward rules in addition to the new regulations that Ofcom are introducing next month.
First, we would propose that no phone call made from overseas using a UK telephone number should have that number displayed when it appears on a UK mobile phone or digital landline; and second, that all mobile calls from overseas using a UK number should be blocked unless the network provider confirms that the known bill payer for that number is currently roaming.
There may of course be concerns that there are legitimate UK businesses with call centres in other countries and outsourced customer experience businesses who represent small businesses – including banks, utility companies and start ups – who use VOIP phone calls and UK numbers because they do not wish their customers to know they are being called from overseas.
The simple solution is for Ofcom to establish a tightly-regulated register of companies that are permitted to use UK numbers when calling from overseas, and of the numbers being used for these purposes, with the stipulation that every other such call would be blocked, and that each individual firm on the register would be struck off if there is evidence that their numbers are being used for fraud.
There may also be concerns that this would have an adverse impact on the call centre industry in India, and might therefore become a sticking point in the negotiations being led by the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) on a UK-India trade deal that we all want to see come to speedy fruition.
However, your colleagues in DBT have assured me (via Written Answer UIN 170566) that there is nothing in “the draft treaty text of the free trade agreement with India on digital services and data” that “would preclude the government from taking unilateral action to block VOIP phone calls to UK households, made from overseas using spoofed UK numbers”, and that they are in fact seeking agreement within the proposed deal on commitments to advance digital consumer rights.
If neither the UK’s business or trade interests are a barrier to these proposals, and there are no other technical or practical problems with them, then I would urge you to consult Ofcom immediately – as I have already done myself – to explore how quickly they could be added to the new controls set to come in next month. In this way, we can make it not just more difficult for overseas gangs to continue using UK numbers for their scams, but near impossible.
This would be just one step of the many we need to take to tackle Britain’s fraud crisis, but it has the potential to be a vitally important one, striking a crucial blow against the parasites who run this industry, and offering better protection to millions of people in our country. If you agree, the Labour Party stands ready to work with you and with Ofcom on making it a reality.
Shadow Attorney General
 In addition, 40% said they were very unlikely to answer a call where the number was withheld. In response to the same question, only 12% said they were likely or very likely to answer an international number that they did not recognise, and 20% said the same of a withheld number, whereas more than 30% said they were likely or very likely to answer a UK mobile or landline number: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0029/247493/ofcom-cli-and-scams-research-august-2022-slides.pdf