Over the past decade, online fraud has crept up to be the most prevalent crime in the UK. The persistence of online fraud is unthwarted. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau recorded around 450,000 reports of fraud and cyber-crime, totalling reported losses of £2.4 billion in the past 13 months alone. Online fraud is constantly evolving in complexity and variety. Furthermore, the rise of covid-related fraud amounting to £34.5 million losses during the COVID-19 outbreak suggests that the fraud industry is adaptive to contemporary social developments. There is growing recognition among UK’s policymakers of the need to develop an anti-fraud strategy. Significant attention has been dedicated to developing stakeholders’ capabilities to respond to online frauds in both enforcement and preventative measures.
The efforts taken are on the correct trajectory. However, one crucial aspect missing focus in the anti-fraud strategy is combating the negativity associated with victims of online fraud. Victims are perceived as gullible or greedy for being defrauded, generally associating being a victim with shame and guilt. The victim-blaming and victim-shaming narrative surrounding online fraud manifest itself in many ways. For example, judgment from friends or family, receiving blame from financial institutions such as retail banks, and businesses holding individual employees liable for fraud losses.
To increase the effectiveness of the anti-fraud strategy, it is crucial that policymakers reshape the narrative surrounding online fraud victimhood away from one that perceives victims as responsible for their losses and instead engenders a contrasting narrative that builds empathy for victims. Including a policy goal to reshape attitudes towards victims of online fraud would help the anti-fraud campaign for three reasons.
First, it would more comprehensively tackle the problem of underreporting online fraud. Online fraud has chronically been one of the most underreported crimes. The Office of National Statistics, for instance, estimates that there are 4.4 million fraud offences in the year leading to September 2020, but only 16.6% of that number was reported. Part of the problem stems from the confidence people have in the effectiveness of reporting fraud to the authorities in recovering their losses. However, a second pillar to underreporting is the reputational cost of gaining an online fraud victim status and the expectation of unsupportive and hostile interactions with financial institutions and law enforcers. Changing the narrative to make victims blameless can reduce the psychological inertia for them to report their cases to the authorities. Underreporting is detrimental to the anti-fraud strategy because it represents a loss of valuable information in trends of fraudsters’ methods, delaying the ability of law enforcement agencies to adapt their response. Additionally, underreporting obscures the scale of online fraud, which can lead to an underestimation of risk exposure to fraud on all levels, including individuals, businesses, and national agencies.
Secondly, it would reduce the inherent incentive for victims to hide their victimhood from their social circles. Shifting away from a narrative that shames victims can help them feel less of the need to conceal their victimhood. Given that law enforcement has limited bandwidth in cyber-crime prevention education, forcing them to prioritise the use of their resources, leveraging victims to share how they have been defrauded can act as an extension to the preventative efforts to reduce incidences of successful fraud. Especially since each fraud scheme often designed to target people within the same demographic, timely sharing of information and experiences can help people in the same social group identify red flags and warning signs before any financial losses.
Lastly, it would be critical to dispel myths about which demographic is susceptible to online frauds. The belief that only people who are uneducated, of low socioeconomic status, elderly, or lonely are vulnerable to scams is not only untrue, but also breeds complacency that increases the chances of falling prey to fraud. It is untrue because frauds exploit psychological traits that anyone might have, such as exploiting people with higher risk tolerance. Empirically, when all varieties of scams are considered, it is difficult to ascertain a generalised profile of victims. Given the reality, it is pertinent that we normalise the notion that everyone is a potential victim to encourage risk-minimising behaviour. This requires shifting the narrative away from the current conceptualisation of victims of frauds as possessing negatively perceived traits.
It is laudable that tackling online fraud is increasingly concerning to policymakers. Victims are recognised as one of the key tenets of the policy response to fraud. Yet, less attention has been given to changing the narrative around victimhood. A good place to start could include expanding training of victim-facing stakeholders, such as bank service staff and police officers, to be more empathetic in their interactions with victims. While reshaping the narrative cannot happen overnight and requires deep cultural and perception transformation, it is important that we embed this idea when thinking about policy tackling online fraud.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.