Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1060 - 1079)



  Q1060  Lord Harris of Haringey: Does the Home Office need to support it to unlock the private sector funding?

  Commander Wilkinson: I am going to go back to Vernon Coaker who is the minister concerned with the detailed business case when it is completed.

  Q1061  Lord Harris of Haringey: Do you think it needs the Home Office to give their support and provide some funding to unlock the private sector finance?

  Commander Wilkinson: Vernon Coaker has already given his full support of the unit and I need to go back to him with the financial situation and put a business case to him. I have no undertakings currently of government support but I have not actually specifically asked for it yet.

  Q1062  Lord Harris of Haringey: The private sector sponsors are not saying that their support will be conditional on Home Office financial support.

  Commander Wilkinson: I have not had that specifically said to me, no.

  Q1063  Earl of Errol: My understanding is that since the Home Office failure to match funds for the Dedicated Card and Plastic Unit the private sector was somewhat more sceptical about Home Office indications that they would jointly fund or match funds for these things in the future.

  Commander Wilkinson: I am sure there is some scepticism and clearly there have been some cuts in similar areas recently of existing funding but, as I say, I have spoken to the Home Office minister concerned on two occasions now about the actual unit and he has asked me to go back to see him again once the chief constables have given their endorsement—which they have done—and once the detailed business case is prepared and ready, which it is not yet, we are in the throes of doing that at the moment.

  Q1064  Earl of Errol: My understanding is that the Home Office will not designate e-crime as a separate crime or a separate category as they do not want to muddle the fraud figures and the other forms of crime. If they refuse to recognise it as a separate form of crime or as another means of committing crimes, will that not make it very difficult for them to provide funding for a unit?

  Commander Wilkinson: I think it is more a question for me of making sure that the e-crime issue is part of the national strategic assessment and appears in the national policing plan, the national community safety plan. When I have got to that stage—I am working towards that as well—I think by making it more of a priority in terms of police aims and objectives nationally that is the way to get resources put into it not only from government but also around the country from the various police forces.

  Q1065  Lord Howie of Troon: Last weekend I had occasion to go down to the south coast near Beachy Head to visit my daughter and grandchildren. While I was away my burglar alarm went off. My next door neighbour rang up the police who did not seem to be terribly worried about this. Do you treat e-crime with the same promptness as they do?

  Commander Wilkinson: It is very difficult for me to comment on individual cases.

  Q1066  Lord Howie of Troon: They are all individual cases.

  Commander Wilkinson: Yes, and I was in the throes of answering that question when the bell went. Because of the scale of e-crime across the board it is impossible for us to individually investigate every single report of it. What we are doing is getting an ever improving intelligence picture around what is happening in terms of trends and types of e-crime that are being committed. We are working in partnership with industry and other law enforcement agencies to cut it off at the root, if you like, and to stop it happening and to get ahead of the game. That is actually, I think, the most effective way we could tackle e-crime. If an e-crime is reported to us that represents a particular amount of threat or harm to any individual or to any critical national infrastructure or whatever then clearly that would immediately be risk assessed as one that needed to be investigated separately.

  Lord Howie of Troon: I am very happy with that answer. It turned out to be a false alarm; I do not have anything worth stealing anyway.

  Q1067  Lord Mitchell: The individual reporting this type of crime feels very, very stupid; for the small amounts of money he feels very stupid and will not take any action on it. This is the issue, is it not, they work on the fact that there are millions out there who have small crimes and therefore they do not report it?

  Commander Wilkinson: I would hate any member of the public to feel they could not report a crime that concerned them to us. The important thing for people to understand is that each individual e-crime cannot necessarily be individually investigated. Certainly part of my remit with my national hat on is to make sure that people receive a decent quality of service whatever they are reporting to the police. Having said that, there are a lot of other ways that people can draw crime to our attention. There are various websites where people can tell us what has happened in order for us to get a much better intelligence picture about how to prevent it happening in the first place. We need to promote those websites; although they are pretty well promoted already we need to promote them more and to improve accessibility to the websites. By improving that intelligence picture we can tackle all of this much more effectively in the big picture.

  Mr Hughes: The analogy of policing has always been the same. You go in to report that your wing mirror has been broken and the car window has been smashed and someone has attempted to steal the car, most people will recognise that individual investigation is not going to happen. What the cops do is build up a pattern so that if every night or every Friday night for a certain period of time this is happening in a certain locality, then the police officers will do something about it. Often that will take out the person who is doing it. It goes back to what I was saying, you address the cause and not the symptoms. The same is true here. An example of what we have done recently within SOCA is that we were made aware of an attack that was going to be perpetrated on Internet banking sites. This is in the public domain now because we have referred to it and it will be in our annual report which has just been published. We made that information available through an alert to the banks and financial institutions; they were able to put the software devices in place to prevent it from occurring which meant that a lot of people carried on Internet banking without any threat or hindrance and never knew it had happened. What would have happened if it had gone through would have been a major problem with a great many people who would have wanted to report it. It would have seemed like small amounts but it would have amounted up to a huge amount of money. It was stopped from happening and that is what we are trying to do, get ahead of the curve rather than investigate it afterwards. There would be some difficulty chasing these guys after they have perpetrated the offence. The point I was making earlier on is that we do need to know about these matters so that we can build up a pattern and build up the intelligence and that is what the police unit that Sue is talking about is trying to do and what we are trying to do.

  Q1068  Chairman: To what extent is SOCA already doing it for individual complaints? You talk about the wing mirror, is what you say actually happening with the equivalent in the e-world, if there is an e-Bay person who has lost £180?

  Mr Hughes: the equivalent in the e-world is that that information is coming to us because of people like e-Bay who will collate that and bring it to us. Other people who collate it bring it to us. That is one of the reasons why some guidance has gone out recently about making sure that information is collated. When you report to your bank that you have been a victim then it comes back in a collated pattern form we can do something about.

  Q1069  Earl of Errol: How long has this been happening?

  Ms Lemon: e-Bay have a wealth of intelligence around criminal activity.

  Q1070  Earl of Errol: I know from friends who have been defrauded using auction sites that if they ring e-Bay then e-Bay say they cannot do anything about that particular fraud because if they did not pay through Paypal they are not interested. They suggest they report it to the local police; the local police are not interested in taking the report because the other person is under a foreign jurisdiction and so what you are describing does not happen. Even if they were to report it to SOCA it is not in your remit. Do you then parcel that back out to the local police force to do something because you are not responsible for level two crime across county boundaries within the UK if serious crime is not behind it?

  Mr Hughes: You are misunderstanding what I am saying. The point is that what we are looking for and what we are creating with our colleagues and people in the private sector, is to build up that pattern and bring it back to us so that we can do something about it.

  Q1071  Earl of Errol: If it is not serious crime you cannot, so what do you then do with it? Do you report it to someone else?

  Mr Hughes: That is the point. What we are talking about here—as I was referring to with the fraud that went on—are very small amounts which build up into a large amount of money. Serious organised crime is not defined in the legislation that set up SOCA. The point is that what we are looking at is that which impacts seriously upon individuals, where it is clearly organised, where there is substantial financial profit or whether there is violence or other harm caused. Those are the issues we are looking at when these matters are reported to us.

  Q1072  Earl of Errol: When I report that I have lost £500 to you at SOCA, if you decide it is not part of a serious organised attack and is something below the million pound threshold perpetrated by a few people in Britain, what do you do with that?

  Mr Hughes: If those crimes are reported to us then we will refer you to your local police force. That is the issue we are talking about here.

  Q1073  Earl of Errol: Will they do anything about it?

  Commander Wilkinson: There would be an initial assessment of a report like that. You can quickly tell how difficult it is going to be and whether it is even going to be possible to identify the offender. Rhe Metropolitan Police on behalf of the other forces, works with e-Bay to gather intelligence pictures around particular trends and patterns. Once we have a good intelligence picture we can put a proper investigation, whether it is at a national or even at an international level working with SOCA then we will do so.

  Ms Lemon: Just for clarity, if these crimes are reported to SOCA, where we work with e-Bay is because they have a very good intelligence base around the big criminals on e-Bay and that is where we engage with them.

  Q1074  Earl of Errol: That is the reason I used it as an example because actually people do not and there is no mechanism to do it, therefore those crimes do not actually get reported.

  Ms Lemon: To the local police they do.

  Mr Hughes: It was a point I was making, that we need to find ways in which we can gather that information.

  Q1075  Earl of Errol: It is not a SOCA task to do that, it is a police task, is it? This is an important distinction which is why the national centre is so important and it is not to do with SOCA, it is to do with the initiative led by Commander Wilkinson.

  Commander Wilkinson: It may involve SOCA because it depends on the scale of the issue. e-Bay is an international organisation so we may need to work very closely with them.

  Q1076  Earl of Errol: I realise you may need to but the new national centre and all the stuff we are talking about is not a SOCA responsibility.

  Commander Wilkinson: Taking initial crime reports at a local level is the responsibility of local police forces. The purpose of the new ACPO police unit will be to coordinate what happens across the 43 police forces, not to take individual crime allegations but it will be to monitor crime patterns across the UK, across the ACPO police forces.

  Q1077  Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Commander Wilkinson, you have spoken about the websites where people can report this.

  Commander Wilkinson: Yes.

  Q1078  Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Is there a website where you can report if you have been a victim?

  Commander Wilkinson: The key one is the Fraud Alert website which is currently available through the Metropolitan Police website but is actually accessed by people nationally and internationally. We have something up to 15,000 reports a month. There is a disclaimer on the website to inform people that we will not necessarily send a reply to the e-mail nor will we necessarily investigate what we are being told about, but what the public are doing is helping us to assess exactly what the intelligence picture looks like so we can tackle it at source much more effectively.

  Q1079  Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Ideally what you want is for people to go onto that website and report it on the website rather than going round to their local police station.

  Commander Wilkinson: Both. I would never want to discourage people from going to their local police station but the useful thing about the Fraud Alert website is that reports that appear on there are actually collated and assessed properly, subject to intelligence analysis and dealt with and prioritised accordingly.

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