OFT can't cope with internet scams

Office of Fair Trading lacks the technical skills to investigate internet scams, a Lords inquiry hears
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The Office of Fair Trading has admitted that it does not have the technical expertise to deal with internet criminals.

Mike Haley, head of the OFT Scambusters team, said on Wednesday that his team's expertise lay in dealing with "real world" trading scams, rather than online fraud.

"We have a lack of skilled and competent investigators in the area to make a dent in email and internet scams," Haley told the Lords Science & Technology Committee, which is investigating internet security in the UK. "We need spam-related enforcement," Haley added.

The OFT Scambusters team was launched in September 2005 to target the most prevalent and harmful mass-marketing scams aimed at UK consumers, both offline and online. However, Haley said that dealing with junk email was not an area where his team was particularly competent.

"We're not always the most competent in tracking internet and electronic [communications]. We are competent in using our detection skills," said Haley.

Typical spam scams include offering false business opportunities, offering fake lists of email addresses for those wishing to spam, chain letters, work-at-home schemes, health and diet scams, and false investment opportunities. One of the most well-known scams is the 419 fraud, an advance money scam where victims are offered huge financial rewards to tempt them to send advance funds to the scammers.

The UK government brought the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) into law in 2003, in an attempt to govern the sending of unsolicited mail. Haley told the Lords committee that these regulations aren't tough enough.

"The law is inadequate. We have no complaints on our database, and we can't go into premises to seize equipment [of UK spammers]," said Haley. "Our powers are based in the offline world, where we know where a trader is. Often spam is sent over a weekend before we even have a chance to move."

As sending spam is a civil, not a criminal, offence, the OFT has only civil injunctive powers, so cannot seize computer equipment it suspects of being used to spam. Spammers targeting America cannot be extradited because of the civil nature of the offence.

To combat the rising tide of spam, Haley called for a single, national spam-reporting point.

"There is a lack of a single place to complain," said Haley. "I'm sure we would be delighted if there was a simple way of forwarding complaints or scams.

When asked by the Lords whether the OFT would be willing to act as the single reporting point for internet scams, Haley replied that while the OFT has a duty to advise people on how to avoid spam and scams, lack of technical expertise and the sheer volume of spam would hamper its response.

"We would be overwhelmed," said Haley. "How could we deal with that information?"

The Lords Science & Technology Committee is due to report its findings into personal internet security in the summer.

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