Failure to regulate 'number spoofing' a national scandal, TV expert says

Scam Interceptors co-presenter says government needs to make more use of diplomatic channels to shut down overseas-based operations
Nick Stapleton

By Jim Dunton

26 Mar 2024


One of the presenters of BBC One series Scam Interceptors has described the UK's failure to crack down on fraudsters' use of domestic landline numbers when calling potential victims from abroad as a "national scandal".

Nick Stapleton told an Institute for Government panel session investigating ways government can combat fraud that there are "technological solutions" that could be depolyed to contribute to counter-fraud work that are not being enacted.

He said making it easy for fraudsters based outside of the UK to contact potential victims using phone numbers that suggest a call is coming from within the UK – a practice known as "spoofing" – was an area ripe for focus.

"Currently we've got legitimate businesses with overseas call centres who are perfectly allowed to spoof UK numbers when they're ringing into the UK. We should be licensing that," Stapleton told the event.

"If we say to those overseas call centres that are being run by legitimate businesses 'pay Ofcom for the right to do this, we'll create a database and anyone outside that is banned', you would stop 95% of bank impersonation scams tomorrow.

"All of those scam call centres who do that would have to find a new way to get in touch with those most vulnerable peope who they try and reach."

He added: "I think it's a national scandal that we have not been more on top of this."

On Scam Interceptors, Stapleton has paid particular attention to a single call centre in Kolkata, India, in what he described as the "Silicon Valley" of scam call centres. He said the area, known as Sector V, was where the "vast majority" of scam call-centre operations calling the UK from India were based.

Stapleton said that with the use of automation, a single call centre could make 100,000 calls to the UK every day, with typical operations working six days a week.

He told last week's IfG event that better public education about the risks of fraud would be the main way to close the "open goal" that scammers profit from.

"I think we need to start teaching this in schools," he said. "We need to clue up generation upon generation, starting from the absolute youngest age imaginable and essentially try and create a population who are far better defended against scams than what we have now.

"If you've got a population who are already prepared for the red flags, already financially literate about this kind of thing, we would be much better protected."

Better use of soft power

Stapleton did suggest, however, that the UK could potentially use diplomatic channels to encourage nations known to specialise in particular types of fraud that targets the UK to take a tougher stance on perpetrators.

"In India, they've got 15 million graduates who join the workforce every year with university-level degrees," he said. "They simply do not have the jobs to support that level of graduate employment. So a great deal of 18-25 year-olds in a country where 25% of people are vulnerable to extreme poverty – so I'm not judging them for doing this – do end up going into, for example, working in scam call centres."

Stapleton concluded: "I think we do need to look at a diplomatic response to this, because I'm just not sure that raiding call centres is going to be the answer. You raid one massive call centre, there's four managers, those four guys all go and set up smaller operations somewhere else."

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry was also a member of the IfG panel. She questioned why the government did not make more use of its post-Brexit trade deals to extract commitments on cooperative working to reduce fraud.

"We know that when they were negotiating the Indian trade deal, they didn't even talk about fraud," she said.

"Why are we not talking about international work when it comes to deals on trade? It's quite possible to have a chapter on security and part of that should be making sure agencies work together in order to be able to fight fraud."

CSW sought a response from Ofcom to Stapleton's observations on phone-number spoofing.

Ofcom said it does not regulate call centres, but does regulate how communications providers use telephone numbers.

The watchdog said it had rules about the use of phone numbers for calls and had published a guidance document with advice on identifying and blocking calls with spoofed numbers.

A spokesperson said: “Scammers can cause huge distress and financial harm to their victims, and protecting people from harm is a priority for Ofcom.

"These criminals are becoming more sophisticated and tackling them requires efforts from a range of bodies. We’re working closely with the police, other regulators and industry to tackle the problem.

"We continue to work with telecoms companies and the government to combat scam callers, and we encourage consumers to challenge requests made for personal information over the phone. If you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud."

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