FRAUDSTERS conned North-East residents and businesses out of £31.4m last year, while the vast majority of investigations concluded in the same period ended with no culprit punished.

A Northern Echo investigation found that more than 23,000 frauds were reported in our region during 2018/19, with less than 200 criminal charges recorded against scammers that year.

Most of those who report scams will see their cases closed without anyone being brought to justice, according to recent figures published by the UK’s national reporting centre, Action Fraud.

Victims are currently encouraged to report their experiences to the centre, which passes cases to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau for further investigation.

The NFIB then decides whether to disseminate cases to local police forces for enforcement, taking into account viable lines of enquiry and the possible threat, risk or harm to victims.

Echo analysis found that 797 cases were referred to North-East forces by the NFIB last year, the equivalent of around three per cent of the 23,488 fraud crimes reported between April 2018 and March 2019.

In the same period, just 298 judicial outcomes were recorded for the North-East and North Yorkshire, according to fraud profiles prepared for each of the region’s police forces.

Outcomes recorded for Cleveland Police, Durham Constabulary, Northumbria Police and North Yorkshire Police included 197 charges, 34 cautions and 53 community resolutions, which do not result in a criminal record.

The majority of cases impacting on individuals involved cyber fraud, with many people scammed while online shopping or via ‘computer software service’ fraud involving cold calls from hoaxers claiming to have identified problems with devices and offering bogus technical support services.

In 2018, elderly widow Penny Birks lost her life savings after opening a hoax email claiming to be from her bank, NatWest.

The first part of the scam relied on the email corrupting her computer with a virus, after which cold calls were made to Mrs Birks by criminals purporting to be from NatWest and claiming that there were irregularities with her account.

The Middlesbrough woman lost almost £12,000 and was left with nothing after answering bogus security questions posed by the scammers during the conversation.

Following a lengthy and sustained battle with NatWest, Mrs Birks’ son-in-law Colin Ashton eventually managed to secure a refund of the cash lost but said the fraud had had a lasting and disruptive impact upon Mrs Birks and her loved ones.

Nobody was brought to justice for the crime, despite the efforts of local police officers and national fraud agencies.

Mr Ashton said that the recent fraud figures came as “no surprise” and described them as appalling.

He called for more to be done to protect vulnerable people from fraud and for more support in its aftermath.

Mr Ashton said: “My mother-in-law lost her life savings and it was absolutely devastating – it has taken her a long time to get over it, it was a huge blow.

“I would urge anyone in the same position to seek support as it can be a full time, physical and mental project trying to sort it out.

“There are some people who cannot manage it themselves and if they don’t have family that is able to handle it for them, there needs to be more support available.”

A spokeswoman for the City of London Police, which runs Action Fraud, said the service received 40,000 reports each month.

She said complex cases could take years to complete and could result in outcomes other than judicial punishment, such as disruption to bank accounts and phone lines, adding: “Fraud is the fastest growing crime in the UK and it is not possible for every report to result in a judicial outcome.

“Fraud is unique in that it can span numerous victims based in different locations and suspects living in another location, even overseas.

“It is important, therefore, that law enforcement not only focusses on pursuing suspects, but also works to prevent and protect people from fraud, particularly those most vulnerable victims.”

North Yorkshire Police said a backlog of administration work in providing figures was responsible for Action Fraud publishing zero judicial outcomes for the force.

A spokeswoman added: “We have a highly skilled team of dedicated financial investigators and detectives in our Economic Crime Unit who have seen a number of fraudsters charged or convicted in the past year.”

A Cleveland Police spokeswoman said all incidents of fraud referred to the force were “investigated in-depth” and said the highlighting to the public of emerging trends and scams would continue.