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Fraud is Most Common Kind of Crime

ComputerRecent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that fraud is the most common category of crime in the UK at present. The data shows that nearly six million instances of fraud and cyber crime were perpetrated across England and Wales in 2015, the majority of which were cases of banking fraud.

The data comes from the ONS’ regular Crime Survey for England and Wales. This is the first time that the survey has included questions related to fraud and misuse of computers. Based on the results of the survey, the ONS estimates that the year to March saw 3.8 million offences classed as fraud and around two million cases of computer misuse. This would mean fraud offences take place more often in England and Wales than any other type of criminal activity.

The most common category of fraud was banking and credit account fraud. This accounted for an estimated 2.5 million cases. This was followed by non-investment fraud, which includes things such as online retail scams. Of the estimated two million offences of computer misuse, most – around 1.4 million – involved the use of a virus to infect the victim’s computer or another internet-capable device in order to facilitate the offence. The other 0.6 million cases of computer misuse fall into the category of “unauthorised access to personal information,” which includes things like hacking in order to obtain a person’s sensitive details.

The number of fraud and computer misuse cases is greater than thought. The ONS previously estimated a figure of around five million based on a “large-scale field trial.”

The data on fraud and cyber crime is separate from other data recently reported by the ONS, which estimates a total of 6.3 million offences against adults in the twelve months leading up to March. This is a decrease of 6% compared to the figures from the previous year’s survey.

As the ONS’ John Flatley points out, the data for fraud and cyber crime suggests that these kinds of crime “are similar in magnitude to the existing headline figures covering all other crime survey offences.” Taken together, the two categories of offence that have been newly added to the survey fall short of matching all other crime by a relatively small 0.5 million offences.

“However,” Flatly continued, “it would be wrong to conclude that actual crime levels have doubled, since the survey previously did not cover these offences.”

Data on fraud and computer misuse was only gathered through the second half of the twelve month period analysed, since the relevant questions were only added to the survey in November. The data for the last half of the year was then scaled up to provide an estimate for how many such offences took place over the full twelve month period.

Mixed Reception for Legal High Ban

Legal HighsThe new nationwide ban on legal highs has come into force, sparking a mixed set of opinions and responses. Some have welcomed the ban as an important step in tackling dangerous substance abuse issues, while others have expressed doubts as to the practicality of enforcing the ban.

Legal highs, also known as “new psychoactive substances,” are chemical substances that are designed to have effects very similar to those of prohibited drugs, but also to be different enough in composition from those drugs to escape existing bans. They are ostensibly sold for purposes other than human ingestion – another step in evading existing drug laws – but when ingested produce a “high” similar to other drugs such as cocaine. Last year, a rise in prison violence was linked to legal highs, and over 100 deaths around the country were believed to involve such substances.

The new law represents a blanket ban on all such substances, effectively closing all the loopholes that the previously slipped through. Bans have previously been enforced on the local level in some areas, but the new law takes effect nationwide. It prohibits production of these substances, as well as selling or otherwise supplying them. It also empowers the police to shut down both online stores and physical “headshops” which sell drug paraphernalia, as well as to carry out searches and to confiscate and destroy any such substances they find.

Many have been delighted by the new law. Notably, those who have campaigned against the use of dangerous psychoactive substances have welcomed the ban. Karen Vandersypen, who began campaigning against legal highs after they led to the death of her son, described herself as “delighted.”

However, there are also doubts about whether it will be feasible to enforce the ban effectively. The new law was originally supposed to take effect last month, with questions about enforcement reportedly being among the reasons for the delay. Now the government has released its “forensic strategy,” methods of testing substances to establish whether they fall within the scope of this law, further doubts have been expressed. A number of lawyers, forensic experts and pharmacologists predicted that enforcing the prohibition on new psychoactive substances would be “fraught with difficulty.”

Critics have also suggested that convictions under the new law would be relatively difficult to obtain. A large part of this difficulty relates to the testing strategy, and difficulties in definitively establishing that a substance produces a high. According to professor Les Iversen, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), writing in a letter to the Home Secretary: “There is currently no way to define psychoactivity through a biochemical test, therefore there is no guarantee of proving psychoactivity in a court of law.”

Founder of Silk Road Receives Life Sentence

Silk RoadA sentence of life imprisonment has been handed down in the US to Ross Ulbricht, founder of black market selling platform Silk Road. The sentence came as a surprise to some degree, since it was even more severe than the one requested by the prosecution.

The Silk Road, which first launched in 2011, existed on what is called “the dark web” – a section of the internet only accessible through anonymous proxied internet connections. While there are also legitimate sites in the dark web, it is also where you will find the bulk of the internet’s illegal activity. Such activities can only practically take place in this anonymous environment, as on the mainstream internet such websites would quickly be shut down and their creators identified by law enforcement.

It was into this category of anonymous, illegal websites that The Silk Road fell. It served as a billion-dollar platform for buying a range of black market goods, predominantly illegal drugs. Ulbricht founded the site and operated it under the pseudonym “the Dread Pirate Roberts” in reference to a character from 1987 comedy film The Princess Bride. As well as illegal drugs, the site also sold fraudulent identity documents and other such items. There is a charge still waiting to be heard in Maryland relating to murder-for-hire services.

Identifying the origins and owners of websites on the dark web is difficult, but as one of the most prominent illegal trading platforms Silk Road received a comparatively large amount of attention from law enforcement bodies internationally. In 2013 US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was able to shut down the website and arrest Ulbricht, who had been successfully identified as the man behind the site.

Judge Katherine Forrest, in handing down the sentence, decided to go beyond even the requests of the prosecution and apply the full force of the law. As well as his sentence of life imprisonment, Ulbricht has been ordered to pay huge restitution payments. This restitution, estimated to be equivalent to the total value of drug and fake ID sales made through Silk Road, amounts to more than US$183 million (roughly £120 million). Sales of assets seized by authorities, predominantly virtual currency bitcoin through which Silk Road received payments, will be used to help meet these payments.

In sentencing Ulbricht, Forrest said: “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”

Ulbricht admitted the charges against him over the course of the trial, but had hoped for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” Ulbricht claimed. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble”

Overall Crime Down but Reported Rapes on the Rise

According to official figures from the Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales is falling. This conclusion was also backed up by separate research from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which identified a 16% drop on overall crime. Despite this, however, the number of reported rapes is at its highest ever level.

This is not necessarily entirely down to an increase in the number of offences taking place. For a number of reasons, rape has historically been a significantly underreported crime. Now, victims are becoming more and more willing to come forward and make reports, so that more instances of this type of crime are actually recorded by police. Police writing off reports of rape and generally failing to record them properly is an issue that has raised concerns recently. Following the controversy that has surrounded the issue, according to the ONS’ head of crime statistics John Flatley, “it’s certainly the case the police are taking action to improve their recording and handling of rape investigations.”

However, there are concerns that this may be only one factor driving the increase in the number of incidents recorded, with figures also being driven upwards by an actual increase in the number of offences taken place. The official data does not offer any indication of whether this is likely to be the case, but some statisticians have stated that a 48% increase in knife-point rapes, for instance, is likely to be down to a genuine rise rather than simply better recording processes.

The increased number of reported rapes is made up of two kinds of allegation. Recent years have seen a significant rise in the number of victims gathering the necessary courage to report historical offences when they did not feel able to come forward at the time. However, nearly three quarters (73%) of the latest increase are down to current offences – a departure from the trend seen in recent years.

Overall crime, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, is down to a total of 7.1 million offences over the course of a year. This is the lowest level seen since 1981 when the survey started. Meanwhile, the ONS’ data showed that the number of rapes recorded by police in the year leading up to June was 22,116. This is an increase of 29%. The number of rapes in which the victim was threatened with a knife increased by nearly half, rising to 294 from 199.

Tory MP Calls for Halt on Lawyers Helping With Tax Avoidance

Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke today put proposals before clients that could see lawyers prosecuted if they help clients with tax avoidance. The plan would prevent solicitors from providing clients with advice which serves no purpose except to act as a way of avoiding tax.

Elphicke, was formerly a tax lawyer himself and is now Conservative MP for Dover. He has tabled the proposals as amendments to the Finance Bill. Today is the final day that this bill will spend in the House of Commons as part of its public bill committee stage. Among the issues dealt with by the bill is the legal framework to facilitate a crackdown by HMRC on the use of limited liability partnerships to avoid tax through “disguised employment.”

The proposed amendments would make it an offence for a solicitor to propose arrangements to their client that “[meet] the definition of ‘tax abuse.'” The definition in question is given as “any arrangement that, having regard to all the circumstances, it would be reasonable to conclude is an arrangement that has no business, social or other purpose other than the obtaining of a tax advantage.” Those caught carrying out activities which are decided to fall within this definition could potentially face prosecution.

Another proposed clause was also floated which would provide an expansion to HMRC’s already-growing powers to combat tax avoidance. The amendment would allow the tax office to “require any person to disclose any privileged information” in certain situations.

Elphicke’s proposals have met with mixed reactions in the political and legal spheres. However, the opinion of most legal and political experts is that there is little chance that the proposals in question will ultimately be passed into law. Nonetheless, Elphicke is adamant that he wants to at least ignite debate about issues surrounding tax avoidance and its morality. In an interview with The Times, he said “We need to get to a point where, at a dinner party, if somebody tries to boast that they’ve secured millions of pounds in tax savings for a client, people don’t just smirk and think it’s funny.”

Another Tory MP, back-bencher John Redwood, has also been notable for his views on the issue of tax avoidance this year. Redwood called on politicians to build up “a concept of good and bad tax avoidance.” This, he suggested, could avert the possibility that competing measures and proposals from different parties keen to tackle the issue might turn into an “arms race.”

Labour to create new offence of disability hate crime

A new criminal charge for disability hate crime is due to be introduced by Labour as a response to the increased concern that victims who are being targeted are repeatedly being let down. The shadow secretary for work and pensions is set to announce the proposed policy at the annual Labour conference.

Liam Byrne is also due to announce his plan to part company with Atos the company which determines people’s ability to take part in work due to their appalling performance and surrounding controversy. Figures have shown that in every 5 decisions made by the company 2 of those are appealed with the success rate of the appeals being 42%. The company has further added to their failures by not meeting their targets on the average case clearance duration.

According to Home Office estimations 65,000 disability hate crime offences take place yearly. Charities who represent the disabled community say that that figure could in fact be closer to their estimate of 100,000 which they believe is largely due to benefit scroungers. The problem is further complicated according to Mr Byrne due to a system that has failed to work accordingly.

The Labour shadow minister is expected to say to members of his party that he will fight to change the status quo. Aiding with Mr Byrne’s plans is Jenny Macklin the Australian MP who has successfully made changes in her homeland in regards to the provision of services to the disabled.  In his speech he says that today’s society and system constrains disabled people from having a home, a job and care with this urgently needing to change. His pledge in front of his party is that he will push to change the law on disability hate crime and put it on the same stance as all other hate crime.

This year the Crown Prosecution Service along with the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and the National Probation Service all reported that the current criminal system in England and Wales is letting victims of disability hate crime down.

Experts Baffled by Fall in Crime

There is a traditional view that, in times of austerity, crime is likely to rise. This applies to all aspects of criminal activity, and in particular to crimes against property such as theft. However, recent figures have revealed that crime rates have fallen, somewhat surprisingly, in the UK over the last year, a statistic that goes firmly against the expected. Overall, crimes appear to number some eight percent less than in the previous year.

The murder rate in England and Wales also fell by some ten percent, with 549 murders recorded across the year, and this is the lowest level since as long ago as 1978. The figures are baffling criminologists, who believe that trends in the past show precisely the opposite, with crime rising across the board when times are hard. It would appear that both the official annual crime survey and statistics from the police point to a change.

1Professor Mike Hough, an expert criminologist with many years experience in analysing trends, said:
“This fall is striking and unexpected, especially in view of the fiscal crisis, whose impact is bearing down sharpest on the poorest and most marginal social groups. There is no single explanation. Better policing may be part of the explanation, but for property crimes like burglary and car theft changes in opportunities are more important.”

He went on to elaborate as to some possible reasons for the decline in crime:
“Cars are getting more and more secure, and the value of goods that burglars used to target is falling fast. These factors may spill over to other property crime, because there are fewer opportunities for ‘low-level crimes’ or ‘debut crimes’ on which young offenders can cut their teeth. But expressive crimes like violence and vandalism are also falling. Possibly the fall in alcohol consumption among the 16-25 age group may be a factor here.”