Is bank fraud really too trifling for the Met?

Published in the Evening Standard

I have been the victim of a crime which I didn’t even know was happening. I didn’t feel a thing. I only found out about it after most of the damage was done.

It was a few weeks ago now, going through the post, reading my bank statement. Normally, it’s a quick skim read and then shoved in a pile. But this time, I was unnerved to see the figure at the bottom of the page was dramatically lower than the one at the top: had we really spent so much money so fast?

I looked closer. How could I have spent #900 at an electronics shop that I had clean forgotten? When had we had a blowout at the World of Leather? And why were there withdrawals of the maximum #300 every single day?

By now, I could feel myself turning pale, the blood draining from my face. The bank statement, which normally runs to a page or two, went on for a full five pages, detailing day after day of enormous, extravagant spending. The bottom line showed that well over half of our savings had been wiped out.

I soon realised what had happened. A few weeks earlier, my wife had used an ATM machine at a petrol station. It had swallowed her card, the screen displaying a message that said the bank would be in touch to send a replacement. Except the machine hadn’t really swallowed it at all. Or, if it had, it had regurgitated it for someone else to use.

Which they did, as if they had just won the lottery. Remarkably, through all of this, our bank never called once to check if it was really us spending these huge amounts. Now, I like falafel as much as the next man, but was it really possible that I had spent a cool #1400 at a Turkish restaurant in Walthamstow not once, but three times?

What followed were days of phone calls, multiple form-filling and much angst. But, in the end, I’m glad to say, the bank acted impeccably and restored to us all the money that had been lost.

But who were the missing players in this drama? Why, the Metropolitan Police. The very force which, Sir Ian Blair promised when he took over as Commissioner nearly two years ago, would become more responsive to the needs of the public. We reported the episode to them, had a short phone call – dedicated to working out which station should have jurisdiction over our case – and filled in a form. After that, nothing. Certainly no visit to our home for an interview. Not even a detailed conversation over the phone.

When I mentioned this to the anti-fraud official at the bank, he replied in the trusty Scottish accent for which call centres are located north of the border, “Ah, that’ll be because you live in London. They’re so busy, this won’t count as a priority.”

I believe that. My wife’s bag was once nicked in a local cafe, her purse and cash all stolen. We reported it but the police did nothing. Even though the owners of the cafe had found CCTV pictures which showed the crime being committed – revealing, clearly and fully, the faces of the culprits – the police never so much as looked at the tapes.

At the time, I understood that. What’s one stolen bag in a city of eight million? But what happened to our bank account was serious fraud, involving tens of thousands of pounds. It was clearly a sophisticated operation too: the thieves had to tamper with the ATM machine, even changing its screen display. Yet, even this crime was seen as too trifling to warrant proper police attention.

One caveat. The bank official said it’s conceivable that the police are investigating – quietly, so they don’t risk alerting what could be a wider criminal ring. But that seems a stretch to me: surely, if the police really were pursuing such an inquiry, they would want to get at least a few details from us.

Instead, all we got was one of those letters saying the Met were sorry to hear that we had been the victims of a crime and that we were eligible for victim support. I was tempted to call back and say the only victim bloody support I wanted was a detective with a notebook in his hand asking the right questions.

And, make no mistake, this would not have been a difficult case to crack. The thief had carried on stealing right up until the morning we had discovered the fraud. The bank’s computer records showed the exact time he had taken the money out of an ATM. The police only needed to get CCTV footage of that machine and they would have nailed him. And our bank statements amounted to a virtual log of his movements, with dates and times, for the previous month.

About ten years ago, when ‘zero tolerance’ first became common parlance, policymakers spoke of the ‘broken window’ theory. It held that if even the smallest crimes went punished, then the big ones would be committed more rarely. If windows were not left broken, but repaired, people would be wary of smashing up the whole house. New York was the testbed for the idea, where police found that by cracking down on, say, graffiti, they saw an eventual decline in the murder rate.

Deal with the small crimes and the big crimes take care of themselves. That was the theory, and the practice, in New York. But London’s police don’t seem to have caught up. Get your bike nicked here, and the police will tell you they can’t do anything about it: there’s too much crime. They haven’t spotted the connection. There’s too much crime because no one investigates a stolen bicycle or bag or even a drained bank account.

So how about this for a new year’s resolution for Sir Ian Blair? Forget the victim support letters. Send a police officer instead.