Scams boom during Trading Standards backlog
This Summer, Citizens Advice reported an unprecedented boom in fraudulent scams during the lockdown. The first five months of 2020 were compared to the same period in 2021. Overall, the number of scams attempted via email rose by 667%. Scams by telephone calls were up 60%.
It was sadly predictable that the scammers would play on our ‘lockdown’ lifestyles and fears:-
54% of the scams related to fake deliveries or parcels,
41% pretended to be messages from the government, and
12% were by someone offering a fake investment or 'get rich quick' scheme
Strikingly, it was not the elderly who were deceived the most. In fact, people aged under 34 were five times more likely to be fooled by a scam than those aged over 55. The younger group were predominantly targeted by texts and messaging services, rather than by audio calls.
Paul Scully, a Government Business Minister, said: "The best way to protect ourselves from scams is to dispel the myth that only a certain type of person is at risk, share experiences, and report suspected fraud to Citizens Advice and Action Fraud."
The problem is not a lack of legal powers. Trading Standards teams, acting both locally and nationally, have long had full powers to investigate, search, and seize evidence from commercial premises and homes. They also enjoy full prosecutorial powers and, with police assistance, Trading Standards can arrest and detain suspects where necessary. There are a raft of bespoke 'Trading Standards' regulations which, alongside the Fraud Act 2006 and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, provide a robust legal framework for the restraint of bank accounts, the detention of cash and the forfeiture of property.
The impact of backlog
The problem lies more with human resources, budgets and delay. Local Trading Standards teams bore the brunt of austerity-era cutbacks. Between 2010-2011 and 2019-2020, these services sustained a 39% real terms funding cut.
There is also a very serious backlog of criminal cases passing through the underfunded court system, and exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown. Priority is now given to serious prosecutions which are typically assumed to be Crown Prosecution Service matters, rather than Trading Standards ones. Moreover, the defendants held in custody will always be heard first (within the custody time limit), even if the charge is relatively minor. All of this tends to delay the hearing of Trading Standards prosecutions, where individuals and business owners are far more likely to be on bail, or where the defendant is a corporate entity. There is no such thing as a 'non-custody time limit' for trial.
Of course, the overall Court backlog of up to 60,000 cases has been covered extensively in the media.
For example, this firm represents a company where a local Trading Standards prosecution started by summons in late 2019, after a 10-month investigation. In early March 2020, an application to dismiss was heard in the Crown Court. Two of the three counts were dismissed, leaving one count to be tried. During the pandemic lockdown the case was simply adjourned, on a six-monthly basis, and is now listed for trial in September 2021. The allegedly offending advertising dates back to almost three years prior to trial. Of course, had our client gone bust during the pandemic (it hasn’t), then it is difficult to envisage justice being served from anyone’s perspective.
In a separate matter, this firm represents an individual accused, alongside nine others, of conspiracy to defraud and money laundering between 2015-2017. The allegation is one of organised doorstep mis-selling to typically elderly customers. It is led by a Local Trading Standards team – their investigation took almost three years. All 10 defendants were prosecuted by summons in August 2020. Nine pleaded ‘not guilty’ in November 2020. As of late August 2021, there is still no trial date. The case seems to be between two different Crown Courts, with neither yet able to accommodate it. The trial is now likely to be in 2023 at the earliest, which would be six to eight years after the alleged doorstep mis-selling.
In Trading Standards cases, delay presents a particular problem for all sides, not just the Prosecution. All those involved are often unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. Of course, Prosecutors cannot keep elderly witnesses waiting for several years - particularly those with failing memories. Equally, a company facing prosecution but keen to clear its good name must also wait under a cloud of suspicion for much longer. Lingering suspicion can inhibit customers, investors and applicants, greatly hindering expansion and profit. Even an individual who protests her involvement was innocent, or who is subject to a bank account restraint order might be kept waiting, financially ‘on pause’ for years until the trial.
It seems that, in the midst of all this, innovative new scams are booming, New, younger targets are in the crosshairs via social media and messaging services. Unfortunately, scammers have boomed amidst the backlog. Equally, those who want to defend themselves should do so pro-actively, engaging with Trading Standards as early as possible. The alternative is often being sucked deep into the waiting list.
If you are under investigation or prosecution from Trading Standards, or if you need assistance in this field, please click here to discuss with our specialist trading standards solicitors or contact us on 020 7183 8950.
Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.