‘Substantial’ rise in fraud and hacking during coronavirus pandemic

Fraud and hacking soared during the pandemic as criminals “took advantage of behavioural changes” while reports of domestic abuse-related offences also rose, official figures show.

Lockdowns and restrictions in movement in England and Wales saw a surge in online shopping which led to “substantial increases” in computer crimes, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Figures for the year to March detail the fullest picture to date of crime patterns during the pandemic.

Action Fraud, the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre, reported a 28% rise in fraud offences, from 312,035 in 2019/20 to 398,022 in 2020/21.

The data showed a 57% increase in “online shopping and auctions” fraud in the latest year (from 62,509 to 97,927 offences) and a 44% increase in “financial investment fraud” (from 14,024 to 20,260 offences), the ONS said.

The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau also reported a 55% increase in “hacking – personal” offences referred by Action Fraud (from 3,481 to 5,390 offences).

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The police recorded 844,955 offences (not including fraud crimes) flagged as domestic abuse-related for the 12-month period, representing a 6% increase from 798,607 offences in the previous year.

This included 672,383 violence-against-the-person offences labelled as domestic abuse-related, a 7% increase compared to the previous year.

It is “difficult to determine” the levels of domestic abuse in the country using police recorded data because of changes in the way the crimes are reported so “we cannot conclude whether there has been an increase in the number of victims of domestic abuse”, the ONS said.

But it added: “Data from victim services suggests that experiences of domestic abuse may have intensified during periods of national lockdown and that victims faced difficulties in safely seeking support under these conditions.”

There were more than two million anti-social behaviour (ASB) incidents recorded by police, up 48% from 1,380,371 to 2,047,960 after “consistent decreases over the past 10 years”.

The ONS suggests this could reflect the reporting of breaches of coronavirus laws which most police forces recorded as ASB.

Stalking and harassment also rose by 28% from 494,550 offences recorded by police in 2019/20 to 632,022 in 2020/21.

While the total number of drugs crimes reported to police jumped 14% from 183,443 to 208,961

According to the figures, year on year the number of homicides fell by 16% to 600 offences, there was a 15% drop in the number of offences involving knives or sharp instruments and police recorded offences involving firearms were down 14%.

Robbery fell by 34% year-on-year, with theft dropping by 32% – driven by a fall in crimes like shoplifting and burglary. Police recorded sexual offences also decreased by 9%, with reports of rape dropping by 6%.

Overall, police recorded 5.4 million crimes in England and Wales in the year ending March 2021, a 10% decrease from the previous year.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Billy Gazard, from the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on patterns of crime.

“There were large decreases in theft offences, such as domestic burglary and theft from the person, as more people stayed at home and limited their social contact.

“At the same time, there were substantial increases in fraud and computer misuse offences such as hacking, as fraudsters took advantage of behavioural changes during the pandemic, such as increased online shopping.”

The charity Victim Support warned the figures do not “reflect the true picture of crime suffered during the pandemic”, adding: “We’ve seen a continued rise of victims accessing our services as a result fraud, hate crime and the number of survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse referred to us has reached peak levels.

“Not only has national lockdowns increased barriers for victims accessing support, we are seriously concerned that victims are put off reporting crimes and engaging with the justice process altogether because of the increased awareness around court delays and concerns about their safety.”