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Crimes they are a-changing

Mark Easton | 16:45 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

After all the warnings of a recession-fuelled crime wave, today's figures are evidence that, even in a downturn, England and Wales continue to become increasingly safe places to live.

I have written before about the myth that when economies go down, crime goes up.

The latest data shows, although many people will choose not to believe it, that in almost every category, crime is down or stable.

But there is one area of criminality which is rising and significantly - credit-card fraud. In a separate publication [346 KB PDF], new statistics show that, last year, 6.4% of plastic-card owners had fallen victim to fraud compared with 4.7% the year before, making it now the most common type of theft.

Plastic card and other bank or building society fraud in the last year, 2005/06 to 2008/09 BCS

With far greater use of plastic cards, the percentage figures disguise a big increase in the number of crimes. By my calculations this means that there were 2.4 million card fraud victims in 2009 compared with 1.7 million the year before - a rise of over 40%.

One area the researchers wanted to investigate was whether victims were being defrauded when using cards online. But, given that people may not know when or where the crime occurred, the question was not put and the best they could do was look for a correlation between fraud and internet use.

Plastic card fraud victimisation by level of internet usage

The link seems clear enough but, as the paper concedes, it is not apparent "whether the pattern of victimisation by internet usage suggests that the internet is a less safe environment for plastic card use, or that those who use the internet more frequently are also more likely to generally use plastic cards more frequently in other locations, such as shops, bars, restaurants and petrol stations".

Another finding is that card fraud, unlike most other crimes, hits the rich more than the poor. Those households with incomes in excess of £50,000 a year were almost twice as likely to be victims than the average card user.

Proportion of plastic card owners who were victims of fraud in the last year<br />
by annual household income

Just over half of those who fell victim to card fraud said they suffered no monetary loss, although 25% were more than £150 out of pocket.

Personal monetary losses reported by victims of card fraud

Plastic card fraud is not included in the BCS count because, when the survey was started in 1981, plastic-card ownership was low and there was little evidence of related fraud. The researchers argue that there remains a case for not including it because the BCS is a "victim-based survey" and "the cost of the crime is often borne by commercial organisations".

However, the sharp rise in card fraud may reopen the argument that the system cited as our best measure of crime trends should do more to reflect the changing nature of crime.

Update 1829: An earlier version of this post said that households with incomes in excess of £50,000 a year were more than twice as likely to be victims than the average card user; this should of course have read "almost twice as likely". Apologies for the error, which is corrected above.


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