Online Scams: Consumer Protection

Part of British Meat and Dairy Products – in Westminster Hall at 4:22 pm on 28th April 2021.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:22 pm, 28th April 2021

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and a real pleasure to respond to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth Edwards on securing a debate on this important subject. I am delighted that Stephen Timms was able to contribute as well. First, may I say that our sympathies are with Mr and Mrs Biggs? My hon. Friend articulated all too well the losses that they have suffered. They have had to endure a terrible experience that, sadly, is experienced by many people, and we heard from the right hon. Gentleman the scale of some of these frauds.

The Government absolutely recognise not only the scale and the impact that fraud can have and is having on victims, but the impact of bringing perpetrators to justice. According to the latest figures, fraud accounted for over a third of all estimated crime in the year ending September 2020 and, as my hon. Friend articulated all too well, behind the statistics there is the trail of misery that these losses can encompass. Victims suffer both financial loss and emotional harm. There can be consequences for their livelihoods, their homes and their families’ futures. We also know that the money that has been stolen from them can often go on to fund other serious and organised crimes.

As this year has demonstrated, more and more people are online at home, and we are acutely aware of the importance of staying safe in the virtual world. We are focusing the Government’s efforts on tackling fraud and online scams in three key areas: prevention; catching the criminals responsible; and supporting the victims of these despicable crimes.

Prevention involves not just victims, the industry and tech companies, but all of us. That is how we will be able to tackle these crimes. We must ensure the private and public sectors prioritise preventing these types of frauds. That is critical to preventing the harms that we have heard about and the economic damage to our businesses, and disrupting the organised criminals who perpetrate these crimes. To do that, the Government are taking steps to ensure that fewer people fall foul of these scams.

The National Cyber Security Centre has been at the forefront of that effort. Last year, it launched a new suspicious email reporting service, which makes it easier for the public to highlight suspicious emails and websites. The service has already led to more than 5.5 million reports, and more than 41,000 scams and 81,000 websites have been taken down.

Importantly, we also need to help the public spot these scams. We are working with banks and many other organisations to help people spot when a scam appears, a dodgy text message appears on their phone or an email appears in their inbox so that they can protect themselves. That is in addition to the wider work with the public and private sectors.

Last year, we launched a new gov.uk page to help keep the public safe online. I recommend it to colleagues, who can perhaps disseminate it through their constituencies. We know that, sadly, in the midst of the pandemic, with the enormous human cost that it has had for so many people, fraudsters are seeking to take advantage of even that. We have been working with partners from across law enforcement and health to track and mitigate the threat of fraud around the pandemic. That has included a series of public messaging campaigns to inform the public of fraudsters who are seeking to exploit the vaccine roll-out and tell them how we can all remain vigilant against such attempts.

We are working with industry to try to cut off these scams before they bear fruit on the internet. We have been leading work to develop bilateral fraud charters with our banking, telecommunications and accountancy partners. They will bring greater clarity, transparency and accountability to the actions that each sector will take to target harden their systems and protect their customers from fraud. An example of that is the specialist Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit, which is a police unit that targets and disrupts credit card fraud and demonstrates the collaboration between UK Finance, the City of London police, the Metropolitan police and the Home Office. It is also working to help online companies take advantage of its services, in particular on the pernicious ways fraudsters are opening up their fraud—for example, through the recruitment of young people to become money mules. There is another great piece of work with the telecoms companies, whereby if somebody receives a suspicious text, they can forward it to 7726, which will enable the telecoms companies to look at it and see whether it should be removed.

The response to online scams and all fraud demands a collaborative, innovative response to keep pace with the changing threat and new technologies. We continue to work closely with industry to drive progress.

My hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman understandably raised the landmark online safety Bill, and they asked whether fraud will be included in its scope. The new law will impose a duty of care on tech companies. Although some companies have taken positive steps already, the Government are clear that more needs to be done. In relation to the specificity of the online safety Bill, there are ongoing discussions.

Of course, what has been said in this debate will be listened to, and the concerns that have been raised will be reflected upon. However, in the more immediate term, my hon. Friend has chosen a timely moment in which to have this debate, because only tomorrow, my noble Friend Baroness Williams of Trafford, along with other ministerial colleagues, will meet with tech companies to discuss a voluntary set of principles for preventing fraud and protecting the public on their platforms. The Government are having productive—we hope—but also insistent conversations with the tech industry as to what it should be doing in order to protect members of the public. I listened to my hon. Friend’s deconstruction—I think that is a fair word—of Google’s policy with great interest, and I will commend it to my noble Friend the Baroness before she goes into tomorrow’s meeting.

We are committed to tackling the problem of online fraud, and are considering every possible approach, including legislative and non-legislative means. As has already been mentioned, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading work on the online advertising programme, which will consider, among other things, the role of online advertising in perpetrating fraud. DCMS is also carrying out broader and longer-term efforts on digital identity and data protection, and as my hon. Friend has mentioned, in February this year, the Home Secretary chaired a meeting of the Economic Crime Strategic Board, which brought together people from across the public sector and industry. At that meeting, an ambitious new framework for a fraud action plan was agreed to drive forward and improve our collective response to these crimes. The full plan will be published later this year and will consider, among other things, how we can include all sectors to protect the public from fraud.

Law enforcement colleagues clearly play a crucial role in this subject, as do intelligence colleagues. We are considering all routes, including legislation, to give them the tools they need to go after fraudsters and protect those who are vulnerable to these harmful crimes. We have asked the Law Commission to review the existing corporate criminal liability laws for economic crime, including fraud, money laundering and false accounting, and we are hoping to hear from them next year. We will, of course, consider any findings that will benefit counter-fraud efforts, and we continue to work with regulators and industry to consider what more can be done.

However, as my hon. Friend has set out, this is about not just the financial impact on victims, but the emotional and other experiences that people have. We understand that reimbursement can be a key part of helping people deal with those experiences, and are working with the financial sector to ensure that as many victims as possible are either able to claim their money back, or are reimbursed. We are working particularly closely with the Treasury to explore what can be done to promote greater consistency across the sector. We are also working with national and local policing leads to support victims of these terrible crimes. The National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit, based within Action Fraud, is also supporting victims, helping them to recover and protect themselves against becoming victims again.

As this debate draws to a close, let me again thank my hon. Friend for having raised these important points in a timely manner. I very much appreciate the points that she and the right hon. Gentleman have made, both about tackling fraudsters and about supporting victims of these crimes. They have my assurance that the Government take these threats very seriously, and it is through working together and taking a collaborative approach—helping the public to understand where there may be a scam, but also working with tech companies to ensure that these adverts and other things that have been described are cut off at source—that we will help to stop these frauds from happening in the first place.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.