The National Economic Crime Centre in collaboration with City of London Police are spearheading a campaign targeting fraudsters responsible for duping members of the public and businesses out of billions of pounds.

Fraud is the most common crime against UK households, with latest crime survey figures showing the estimated number of offences in 2019 compared with the previous year increasing by 9% to 3.8 million.

The campaign, named Project OTELLO, also involves police forces, the Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Conduct Authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The first in a series of operations as part of the new campaign to step up the UK’s response to fraud was coordinated by the City of London Police with a focus on criminals involved in courier fraud.

This fraud typically involves victims being called by someone claiming to be from the police or bank, and persuaded to hand over bank cards, PIN numbers or cash to a ‘courier’ who attends the victim’s home address.

During the course of the operation which concluded in January, 44 arrests were made across nine police forces.

Reports of this type of fraud have increased rapidly over the last 3 years.  In 2019, there were nearly 2000 reports, rising sharply in the last quarter of the year.  This is up from just over 1,000 in 2017 and 1,251 in 2018.

The NECC’s  campaign will also focus on high harm crimes such as romance fraud, investment fraud and payment diversion frauds. Police and national agencies involved will carry out numerous operations to arrest offenders, work to increase awareness on what members of the public can do to avoid becoming a victim, and collaborate with technology companies and banks to ‘design out’ fraud.

The NECC working closely with City of London Police, instigated the campaign following discussions with Chief Constables, Police and Crime Commissioners and senior officers from other agencies at a national meeting in early December.

This led to a tasking being issued under the Crime and Courts Act 2013 by National Crime Agency Director General Lynne Owens focused on improving the intelligence picture on fraud, pursuing offenders causing the highest harm, and increasing the priority of fraud across the system. It was sent on 19 December 2019 to all police forces and Regional Organised Crime Units in England and Wales, Police Scotland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Serious Fraud Office, HMRC and Financial Conduct Authority.

The tasking was proposed jointly by Graeme Biggar, the Director General of the National Economic Crime Centre, and Commissioner Ian Dyson of the City of London Police.  

Graeme Biggar said: “Fraud is one of the most prolific crimes affecting UK residents, and the numbers are rising. The methods used to dupe people into handing over their hard earned savings or inheritance are becoming more complex, and even the most savvy can become victims. This work aims to target those fraudsters causing the most harm.

“We also know the current system in the UK for tackling fraud needs to change, which is why we are working closely with the Home Office, the City of London Police and others on broader reforms. We are determined, along with our private and public sector partners, to make a real difference to the way fraud is tackled.

“Members of the public need to be more aware of fraud and take steps to protect themselves. Raising awareness will be a major part of our activity. We’d encourage anyone who thinks they are affected to report it. Without the best picture of when, where and how fraud is happening we won’t be able to take the most effective action.”

Security Minister Brandon Lewis said: “Fraudsters are callous criminals who ruin victims’ lives while lining their own pockets and the Government is committed to working with the NCA and police to protect the public. 

“The Government is committed to doing more to combat fraud, and I welcome this intensification of efforts to respond to these crimes, building on the existing success of the NCA.

"We have pledged to strengthen the National Crime Agency so it can tackle the threats we face, from fraud, county lines gangs and child sexual abuse to illicit finance, modern slavery and people trafficking."

Commander Karen Baxter of City of London Police said: “Operation Otello, coordinated by the National Economic Crime Centre, will demonstrate what police forces and our partners can do to combat crime, if we focus our resources.  The first operation – that to tackle the scourge of courier fraud – has just come to a close.

“Operation Radium has made 44 arrests since November, as part of our operational crack down on courier fraud.  This will have prevented hundreds of victims being targeted by the criminals whose objective is to steal lifetime savings from vulnerable older people.”