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15 October 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 9:28am

Crime isn’t falling – it’s online

Since 1995, recorded crime has fallen. But much of it hasn't vanished - it's just on the Internet.

By Rick Muir

This morning the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has released statistics that challenge our understanding of what has happened to crime in recent years. Crime as we have traditionally understood it (assault, burglary, vehicle theft etc) has fallen by 66 per cent  since its peak in 1995.  Governments of all parties have claimed much of the credit.

There has always been an inconvenient truth about this fall in crime however: it happened not just in this country but across the developed world.  This suggests a structural change in the underlying drivers of crime, independent of national government policies or the tactics of different police forces.

For some time criminologists have suspected that crime has not so much fallen as changed character and that technology is driving that change. Today’s figures confirm that insight, with estimates of fraud and cyber crime being appended to the official figures for the first time. The Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) now shows an additional 5.1 million incidents of fraud and 2.5 million incidents of computer misuse such as hacking.  If one were to add these 7.6 million offences to the 6.5 million traditional crimes found in the survey in the year ending June 2015, it is clear that overall crime has not fallen by anything like as much as previously thought.

To some extent it has suited everyone to keep these crimes ‘off the books’.  No politician wants the crime figures to go up on their watch. The police face massive budget cuts and lack the capacity to take on new areas of work. The banks operate in a competitive market and are reluctant to flag up vulnerabilities. 

The lack of public pressure to act is however the most significant factor – and this is the reason we should treat ‘surge in crime’ headlines with some scepticism.  The traditional crimes that pose a threat to our physical security have fallen dramatically.  We are much less likely to burgled, robbed or attacked than we used to be and this is very good news. If asked to choose whether we would want someone to spend £500 on our credit card that the bank will very likely pay back or have our house burgled, most people would readily choose the former. For most of us attempted online fraud (eg receiving a phishing email) is just part of the background noise of everyday life. Attempted burglary or robbery, on the other hand, can be extremely unsettling.

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These are still crimes, however.  To take fraud, for example, even when the banks cover our losses, we will all ultimately bear that cost in higher bank charges.  The survey estimates that 22 per cent of victims were not compensated for their loss and this will hit many families hard. Bad people are making a lot of money to engage in further criminal activities.

The rise of fraud and cyber enabled crime poses a major challenge to the police. The police could use these figures to call on the government to protect existing budgets. However, bobbies on the beat will not stop email phishing scams or computer hacking.

The police have not yet developed the insight or practice required for an effective response to fraud and online crime.  Only a very small number of reported fraud offences are investigated. Reported incidents are referred to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau which decides on which cases to prioritise but does not itself have the investigative tools to take them on. Cases are passed to local forces who will often lack the capacity, skills and indeed motivation to investigate fraud, which is rarely a priority.   There is the added complexity that the victim may not reside in their force area and the perpetrator may often operate overseas.

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Even if the police had a better capability to investigate fraud and cyber crime, a traditional ‘pursue and prosecute’ model is unlikely to match the scale and complexity of the challenge.  Prevention is key and policymakers have not yet decided who should take the lead on that.  Should all PC manufacturers be compelled to “design in” anti virus software in the same way that car manufacturers have “designed in” measures to prevent theft? Should we have stronger universal standards of banking security?  Currently banks face a tension between making their systems more secure while at the same time competing with each other to make the customer journey seamless and irritation free. And who should be responsible for educating the public about the dangers of cyber crime?  It is not obvious that police officers are best placed to be warning young people of the dangers of ‘sexting’ and online bullying, for example.

These figures do not mean we are in the middle of a crime epidemic. We are safer as a society than we were twenty years ago.  But in a digital age we need to radically re-think our approach to preventing, reporting and investigating crime.