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Forces must establish ‘scale and impact’ of digital-age crimes, report warns
22 Dec 2015

Police response to digital crimes does not match up to that of traditional ones such as burglary, a new report claims.

Forces are being urged to establish the “scale and impact” of digital crime at both national and local levels.

And the public is entitled to “demand swift action and good quality advice” from the police service in a high-tech age.

Effective leadership, governance arrangements and sound strategies at all levels are required to manage the threat digital crime poses, according to research carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

While not a formal inspection, the document – entitled Digital Crime and Policing Study: Real Lives/Real Crimes, and published on Tuesday (December 22) – examines the experiences of victims who have reported all types of digital crimes including the illegal interruption of social media accounts, romance fraud and blackmail.

The report makes recommendations on how forces can improve their response to such crimes.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Steve Otter said the study has helped inspectors to better understand the effect digital technology is having on crime and policing.

“Digital crime is not a lesser crime; it is as pernicious and disruptive as any other and merits an equal response,” he said.

“The public has the right to demand swift action and good quality advice about how best to deal with those who commit digital crime from every police officer or member of staff with whom they come into contact.”

Elements that need attention included:

  • Showing that the police service takes digital crime and its impact seriously;

  • Better tailored support and advice to victims of digital crime;

  • Better awareness of how to investigate digital crime and the evidence required to support such an investigation;

  • A more consistent and coordinated response by the police within and across force boundaries; and

  • Keeping the victim of digital crime better informed of progress in the investigation.

  • HMIC highlighted several areas, particularly the response to fraud, use of social media and the reform of regional and national where improvements could be made.

    Action Fraud

    Very few police officers and staff understand either their own roles and responsibilities, or those of their force, in relation to the investigation of fraud.

    In particular, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the functions of Action Fraud – the national reporting body for fraud – and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB), which processes information recorded by Action Fraud.

    However, neither body is responsible for the investigation of offences, which are undertaken by the local police force or other appropriate law enforcement agency.

    HMIC considers there is a lack of an effective response to fraud at a local level. One chief officer said chief constables considered that they had: “given [fraud] in its entirety to Action Fraud.”

    The study outlines concerns that the fact fraud is committed online remains a factor which distinguishes the level of police response from that provided for other crimes.

    Simon, the victim of a £60,000 ‘boiler room’ fraud disclosed that he did not have any contact from his local force.

    Yet, in a case of an attempted burglary, one victim described that within 72 hours of reporting, he had received visits from a response officer, crime scene investigators and police community support officers.

    HMIC notes the disparity is all the more concerning, given that Simon actually lost a substantial sum of money and the victim of the attempted burglary retained all his possessions.

    Social media

    The study found evidence of a knowledge gap with officers not being trained in digital investigations and unaware of how to obtain basic of information online.

    HMIC said some officers and staff were dismissive of complaints about the misuse of social media sites and recorded comments such as “[w]hat do they [the victim] expect us to do about it?” and “I do not use social media; how am I supposed to investigate it?”.

    It believes comments such as these demonstrate a “worrying lack of understanding” of both of the threat and risk to the victim and, as a consequence, a failure positively to support them.

    The report identified significant cause for concern over the police’s failure to fully recognise the vulnerability of the victims of digital crime.

    However, it found that initiatives are in place to address this, for example; one leading social media company has provided free training to the 43 forces about how to obtain evidence from social media organisations.

    Regional capabilities

    HMIC believes the development of the regional cybercrime units is a very positive step toward combating cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent crimes.

    It found the relationship between the national cybercrime unit, regional units and forces was good, with both the national and regional units providing effective support.

    However, it was critical that often, investigations were referred to the regional units on a case-by-case basis, with little evidence of the application of referral criteria.

    “Few to whom we spoke, including senior officers, were aware of any such criteria or, if they were, they recognised that they were inconsistently applied,” it said.

    HMIC foresees that demand for these units will very quickly outstrip the capacity of the regional units and it is essential that an effective tasking and coordinating process is established.

    It believes that without this, the regional units will soon be overwhelmed and important investigations might not be properly prioritised.

    It is important forces recognise this now, and ensure they have access to sufficient capacity and capability – either independently or in collaboration – to avoid becoming over-reliant on the regional cybercrime capability.


    HMIC believes that ensuring effective digital investigation and intelligence policing capabilities – which the service has identified as necessary – will require the transformation of a significant proportion of the current policing model and concludes such transformation will require both governance and funding.

    “The case for strong leadership and co-ordination nationally is duplicated at a local level. While the minimum levels of capability may be set at a national level, it is for forces and in particular chief officers, to ensure that they are provided at a local level,” the study said.

    HMIC established that the level of involvement of chief officers varied. Some were clearly engaged and had taken responsibility for putting in place clear management structures, strategies and tactical plans.

    External partnerships

    All the forces that took part in the study had, either individually, or in some cases through a regional capability, recognised the benefits of entering into partnerships with academia, businesses and partners within government.

    A number of forces were making good use of partnership arrangements at a national level. In one force, such a partnership has resulted in the relocation of the force’s digital forensic services and staff to the local university's campus.

    Recommendations for chief constables:

  • Make sure officers and staff understand the significance of online anti-social behaviour, and that they are able to provide effective support and advice to those who are its victims;

  • Ensure the force has the capability to examine digital devices in the most appropriate, effective and speedy way possible and to provide sufficient local capability to deal effectively with digital crime;

  • Appoint a chief officer to ensure that his or her staff understand which cases should be referred to Action Fraud and which require a more immediate response, and that referrals from the NFIB are dealt with effectively;

  • Provide appropriate and continuing training and guidance for all those within his or her force who are likely to deal with digital crime and its victims; and

  • Make sure officers and staff understand the significance of online anti-social behaviour, and that they are able to provide effective support and advice to those who are its victims.

  • National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead on digital intelligence and investigations, Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh, said law enforcement must evolve to meet the threats posed by digital crime.

    “The NPCC, College of Policing, Home Office and the National Crime Agency are working in a multi-agency group to make sure that every officer has the skills, knowledge and access to technology to carry out digital investigation,” he said.

    “We will be allocating funding and resources for digital investigation which will be invested to build the skills, knowledge and capabilities needed to protect all members of the public, including the most vulnerable, from harm.”


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