Author Mark Richards

Online fraud continues to increase dramatically – so much so that there are now distinct regional variations around the UK. Ultimately, though, protecting ourselves is our own job.

So what is Norfolk famous for? Quite right – more than 1,000 medieval churches were built in the county, 659 of which survive to this day. Right again: the Norfolk coast was the first part of Britain to be settled by early man. And, of course, Norfolk is one of the very few counties where there are no motorways: in fact, before the railways were built it was quicker to travel from Norwich to Amsterdam by sea than Norwich to London by road.

So all very worthy answers, but sadly not the one I am looking for. Norfolk is the dating fraud capital of the UK. Yes, more people in the country fall victim to online fraud in the form of dating than anywhere else in the UK.

Consumer watchdog Which? came up with the information, which it obtained via a Freedom of Information Act. And the data revealed plenty of other regional ‘hotspots’ around the UK. In Surrey, it seems that they are impervious to the charms of the online seducers, but no other county suffers more investment fraud. While Wales suffered more cold calling computer cons than anywhere else.

Other regional ‘awards’ went to:

  • Northamptonshire – where residents are 25% more likely than anywhere else to report online shopping and auction scams
  • Dorset, where there were 15,561 reports of computer virus, malware and spyware fraud between 2014 and 2016
  • Warwickshire – which saw 30,994 victims of retail fraud in the same time period

(As a proud Yorkshireman I am disappointed that we have been ‘beaten’ in the league tables by counties like Dorset and Norfolk. Then again, you have to think that there is a county that holds the record for being too embarrassed to report online frauds, or whose residents are not bright enough to realise that they have been scammed…)

What about London?

Online fraud in London

Surely, you think, London must be at the top of one of the league tables: after all, it is one of the world’s major financial centres. It seems that the citizens of our capital can resist romance, investment opportunities and online shopping: but they do fall victim to social media hacking, with 16,240 cases reported between 2014 and 2016.

Why are there regional variations?

Which? said they could not explain why some areas are more prone to certain types of crime. They said that the data was incomplete and many cases go unreported. But a sample size of around 15-20,000 would seem more than adequate to most pollsters. After all, if you can predict the outcome of the General Election by talking to 2,000 people, you can surely get a reasonable picture of the UK’s propensity to be scammed from 15,000 reported cases?

Surely the answer must be demographic factors? If you have a county with a higher than average proportion of elderly women living alone then online dating fraud is a strong possibility. Do the residents of Surrey have more money to invest than the residents of Teesside or the West Midlands? You would have to think so.

Company directors are especially vulnerable to online fraud

One group of people who are increasingly becoming the targets of fraud – irrespective of where they live – are company directors.

According to fraud prevention agency Cifas, company directors are the victims of one in five cases of ID fraud, despite making up just 9% of the UK population. In many ways you can understand it: by definition, company directors must place a certain amount of information in the public domain and this is clearly a very helpful starting point for fraudsters. You would also expect them to have above average incomes, making them attractive targets – and I would wager company directors are less likely to report fraud, for reasons of both personal embarrassment and business confidentiality.

Online fraud continues to increase

Gareth Shaw, one of the Which? money experts think there is little doubt that online fraud is on the increase: overall, there were 264,000 frauds reported to Action Fraud in 2016, but this is likely to be only a fraction of those that occur.

Gareth Shaw said,

“Criminals are constantly finding new ways to rip us off and those tackling fraud should be upping their game. The government needs to set out an ambitious agenda to tackle fraud, while law enforcement agencies need to be working harder to identify and protect the people most at risk from fraud.”

Those are admirable sentiments – but in the real world the government has other priorities and you suspect that Chief Constables up and down the land will look at their budgets and conclude that there are no resources to protect lonely middle-aged women or Surrey investors falling for the latest get richer (or richer) quick scheme.

As Commander Dave Clark of the City of London police said,

“Law enforcement is not the single solution to this phenomenon. The solution requires every individual, business and organisation to take responsibility to protect themselves and others.”

Protecting yourself from online fraud – and be aware of ‘Frankie…’

We have written previously about the steps you can take to protect yourself against fraud, but it bears repeating: if it seems too good to be true it is too good to be true. Let me give you just one, very simple example.

I am a moderately overweight, middle-aged man whose hair is going grey. So why does this stunningly attractive twenty-something – apparently from Wisconsin and called Frankie – want to be my friend on Facebook? It cannot be my wit and charm…

Supposing I had accepted Frankie’s request. After all, she had a lovely smile and wow! That black bikini…

There is a good chance that ‘Frankie’ may actually be from – or was created in – the small Moroccan town of Oued Zem. The town – which is 100 miles south-east of Casablanca – has a population of 115,000, of whom 3,000 are reportedly working in the ‘sextortion’ industry. Oued Zem is not a prosperous city and many people have traditionally relied on relatives working in Europe sending money home: but now it appears they have a new industry.

Fake profiles are created, lonely men respond to friend requests and after an increasingly exciting exchange of messages ‘Frankie’ tells you how attractive you are and suggests that both of you turn your webcams on and perform a sex act. Sadly once you have complied with Frankie’s request you will be blackmailed: ‘pay up or we will post the recording we have just made on all the social media channels and we will make sure your family and friends see it.’

Spies have made use of ‘honey traps’ for centuries. Now it appears that online fraudsters and blackmailers are doing the same to vulnerable men. While it may not do much for your ego to admit that are not as attractive as you once were, in the long run, it may be a very sensible move for both your wallet and your social reputation…