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Identity Theft

21. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): If he will make a statement on the work of the Serious Fraud Office on identity theft. [49930]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Cases of identity fraud are normally prosecuted by the Crown
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Prosecution Service, and no case has so far met the criteria for prosecution by the Serious Fraud Office. However, the Serious Fraud Office engages in policy work on identity theft through its participation in the fraud review.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Solicitor-General be good enough to consider a constituency case in which all of an individual's mail has been redirected to a specific address, but the police are taking no action and no case will therefore be brought? Can he also confirm that the Serious Fraud Office will investigate the huge fraud perpetrated against the Treasury?

The Solicitor General: There is already an ongoing investigation of the Treasury matter. At this stage, it is probably better if I do not comment substantially on that, but my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General recently made a statement that set out some of the background. The particular case to which the hon. Lady refers sounds like a matter for the police to investigate initially. If she has concerns about the police not taking it up, I shall bring that to the attention of Home Office Ministers.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/ Co-op): Will the Solicitor-General confirm whether the legislation on identity theft applies only to individuals? Could it also apply to organisations? Yesterday the Prime Minister referred to a political party that claimed to be Liberal, Conservative and a new Labour successor. Is not that a prima facie case of fraud?

The Solicitor General: That is an interesting view. Political parties sometimes adopt names, and there are appropriate means—through the Electoral Commission, for example—of dealing with that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Identity fraud is undoubtedly a serious problem, although it does not perhaps cost as much as the Government's figure of £1.7 billion, which the banking and credit card group the Association for Payment Clearing Services—APACS—described as

Nevertheless, as we have the Serious Fraud Office and the City of London police, who have specific skills in dealing with fraud, but a patchy approach to fraud in other police forces, will the Solicitor-General, as part of the reorganisation of police, hold serious talks with the Home Secretary to ascertain whether we can adopt a better integrated approach to fraud throughout the country, thus ensuring that prosecutions occur in cases such as that raised by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)?

The Solicitor General: Certainly the national hi-tech crime unit, the Serious Fraud Office and the National Criminal Intelligence Service liaise about fraud operations. Fraud is changing enormously, and that is why a Bill on the matter will be introduced. The new Bill will help us tackle some identity fraud. However, in recent years we have developed greater unity between the different organisations that deal with fraud. The national hi-tech crime unit is one mechanism that has helped bring things together. The Home Office has
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worked with the Department of Trade and Industry and others to try to improve the safety and security of people who are the victims of fraud, especially small businesses and consumers who use the internet. Much work is already being done. The Metropolitan police and the City of London police are at the forefront of that, but there is a great deal of co-operation throughout the country.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): One of the reasons for identity theft is that fraudsters use it to get credit, and credit is too easy to obtain in this country. In the course of my right hon. Friend's policy work in this area, will he ensure that the Serious Fraud Office and the other organisations to which he has referred liaise with banks and other institutions offering credit to ensure that the ease of getting credit does not encourage identity theft? We need preventive work on this.

The Solicitor General: Direct liaison on such matters would take place through the Treasury rather than the Serious Fraud Office. The SFO has substantial links to the banks and other such organisations, but they are primarily for the purpose of dealing with large-scale fraud. That body would not therefore be the best placed to address these issues. None the less, the DTI, the Treasury and the Home Office are all working to ensure that we have effective policies to deal with them.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Solicitor-General will be aware from previous questions that there is disquiet about the way in which identity theft is being handled. Perhaps part of the problem is that it is often not suitable for the Serious Fraud Office to deal with such cases. There is no evidence that a great deal of serious fraud is perpetrated in this way, but there is a lot of evidence of minor fraud. In many cases, the person who has been impersonated is not necessarily the loser, but the taking of their identity is being used to defraud others. Will the Solicitor-General take these points on board and give the House an assurance that further thought will be given to more active engagement by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in dealing with this problem? I have picked up complaints from constituents that when their identity appears to have been taken by someone else, their cases are not being pursued with the kind of energy that one would expect.

The Solicitor General: Identity fraud is a growing problem, which the police and the various prosecuting authorities are aware of. The Home Office has certainly been doing a lot of research into how best to tackle it. A great deal of identity fraud is committed by offshore operations, which are obviously much more difficult to prosecute because they are outside our jurisdiction. However, we have entered into agreements with other countries under which they will prosecute people who are not committing offences in those countries, but are doing so here. We were undertaking that work when I was in the DTI. The Government are very concerned about identity fraud, and much of the work on co-ordinating our activity involves dealing with new aspects of identity fraud that are increasingly becoming a problem. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the police and the prosecuting authorities are taking the subject very seriously.
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22. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): How many prosecutions the Crown Prosecution Service has brought since January 2005 against people posting (a) websites purporting to represent UK banks on the internet and (b) sending bogus e-mails from law firms as a way of getting personal and financial details. [49931]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I regret that I cannot give my hon. Friend the statistics in the precise form that he has requested, because CPS records identify offences in relation to sections of our legislation rather than the means by which the offence was perpetrated. These internet and e-mail offences could be prosecuted under a range of different laws. When the criminal is in the United Kingdom, it would obviously be possible to secure a prosecution. However, when the criminal generates the material abroad, the question of jurisdiction is more problematic.

Mr. Prentice: I realise that this is a difficult problem, perhaps even an intractable one. However, I am fed up with phishing. I get bogus e-mails from Barclays bank
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every day—and I do not even bank with Barclays. Is it technically possible to track down the people who post such information on the web?

The Solicitor General: The answer is sometimes. Research by MessageLabs shows that 18 million phishing e-mails were detected in the course of one year, and we suspect that the numbers have subsequently increased. However, the numbers of phishing e-mails reported by people to the authorities—I am sure that my hon. Friend is one who does that regularly—is actually quite low. So we have the problem that although we are detecting a lot of phishing e-mails and getting anecdotal reports of them, not many people are reporting them to the police and the prosecuting authorities. The national hi-tech crimes unit issued advice on how to avoid such attacks in October 2003, and we are working with the British Bankers Association to try to deal with particular aspects of banking phishing expeditions. It is very difficult to catch some of the people involved, particularly when they are abroad, but the international agreements that we are entering into represent the start of a process of dealing internationally with the internet—which is, after all, an international phenomenon.
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