Sunday, October 05, 2008

My raspberries have been decimated

Funny, but also not funny. 8 crimes on the increase since the credit crunch kicked in.

1. Employee fraud

OK, so perhaps we have all swiped a bottle of Tippex from the office stationery cupboard at some point. But as companies struggle, jobs are less secure and pay and bonuses get frozen, many employees turn theft into a cottage industry.

Recent figures from accountants BDO Stoy Hayward show that employee fraud has cost UK companies more than £77m in the first half of this year - up from just £10m in the same period last year. Some staff are making extra cash through fake expenses claims or stealing company stock or software for resale. Even if you're not ripping off your company, be aware that the finger of blame may be pointed. Disgruntled colleagues who fake more sick days will also leave more work for you.

2. Supermarket theft

Perhaps the saddest example of the crunch is that many supermarkets have had to step up their security. Sainsburys and Tesco have both attached security tags to their chicken and meat - in particular, the more expensive organic items. The devices have to be removed at the till, and let of a shrill alarm if anyone walks out of the door without having the tag removed. Until now, the electronic tags have been attached to small, expensive goods which are easy to sell on such as perfume, batteries, razor blades, booze and DVDs. But with a whole organic chicken costing nearly £10 on average, temptation has increased.

Even more bizarrely, the latest 'must-have' for shoplifters is Slim Fast shakes. Yes, really. The £7 six packs of the meal replacement drinks have been security-tagged after disappearing en masse from supermarket shelves.

3. Allotment theft

Perhaps put off by extra security in supermarkets, food thieves are finding other sources of swag. If you or someone you know has one of Britain's 250,000 allotments or even an impressive vegetable patch there is a new threat to be aware of. Growers who are used to six or four-legged pests are now finding a big increase in two-legged thieves.

Now some angry growers have reached boiling point, forming teams of night-time "vegilantes". In picturesque Ottery St. Mary, Devon, the gardening gloves are off as allotment holders team up to patrol the plots. Local grower Adrian Forster told the Mirror newspaper: "We've always had a bit of pilfering but these days they'll nick anything.

"My raspberries have been decimated. I caught a whole family picking them from my plants and when I challenged them the dad had the cheek to say, 'There's an abundance here. You'll never eat them all.'"

"It's the worst I've known it in 22 years. With the credit crunch, people think they can save money on their food bills. They're running off with our beans, peas and gooseberries. I'm miffed about my goosegogs. They were giant - would've made lovely pies - and they've stripped the bushes bare."

Fellow grower Jackie Roche explained: "I am a vegetarian and totally self-sufficient, so when people pinch the stuff I grow they are literally taking the food out of my mouth."

Adrian added: "These thieves haven't experienced the sweaty effort of wheeling barrows of dung up here, digging it in and tending it all summer. I produce a lot, but I share it with family and friends and swap it for different produce with other growers."

4. Car insurance fraud

Dodgy claims for car crashes are up by 70% with dishonest motorists deliberately writing off their cars to clear their debts. Investigators having uncovered 24,000 fraudulent claims worth £260 million over the past year, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI). At the same time the police forces and the Insurance Fraud Bureau have uncovered a tide of "cash for crash scams" with accidents being staged to raise money.

And if you think insurance fraud is a victimless crime which just affects big businesses, then you're wrong: it pushes up the cost of insurance for everyone.

"Honest motorists pay through higher insurance premiums - an extra £40 a year on average," says the ABI's Nick Starling. "Anyone committing insurance fraud is more likely to get caught, risks a criminal record, and will find future insurance and credit harder to obtain and more expensive."

5. Petrol theft

A few years ago during the petrol shortage, I woke up to find a length of hosepipe sticking out the petrol tank of my car. Luckily the thieves had not been able to siphon off the fuel but as fuel costs remain high, this trick is back in fashion. Petrol stations are also reporting many more cases of people driving off without paying. I always pay for petrol with cash now after so many people I know have had credit and debit cards cloned after filling up.

6. Mortgage fraud

As banks clamp down on lending, mortgage brokers are under increasing pressure to get applications accepted by bank and building societies, sometimes by any means possible. In July alone, the financial regulator, the FSA, took action against nine mortgage brokers, including four firms for mortgage fraud activity.

The FSA now plans to visit 200 financial firms to ensure that their systems protect customers from the risk of fraud. It has even doubled its mortgage fraud investigation team to help tackle the problem.

Michael Coogan, director general of trade body, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, says: "People may not think of lenders as victims of crime, but unless fraudsters are tackled then honest customers are the ones who end up paying more."

7. Travel insurance fraud

This summer has also seen travel insurance targeted by fraudsters. While false claims for things such as cameras, iPods and designer sunglasses are up a whopping 80%, inflated claims for cheaper items are ballooning too.

Some travellers who realise that they cannot afford holidays booked earlier in the year are believed to be cancelling trips after feigning illness and tricking doctors into issuing certificates stating that they are unwell. Most policies offer cancellation refunds when a traveller falls ill before a trip. Unexpected unemployment could also be the basis for a claim, as is the discovery of pregnancy after booking when the date of return home would be within 12 weeks before the due date.

The ABI's Malcolm Tarling says that insurance companies are now primed to spot "tell-tale signs" of false claims: "I won't say what those are though," he adds.

What is known is that claimants can expect forensic inspection of evidence of ownership, with insurers demanding receipts for cameras, phones, watches and other goods, as well as bank statements or money-changing receipts for any claims over mislaid or stolen holiday cash. Insurance company staff are being trained to detect nervy responses and other giveaway signs and are more likely to send investigators to interview claimants face-to-face.

8. Burglaries

Insurance giant Churchill has recently warned those consumers heading off on holiday of the risk of returning to find that they have been burgled. According to statistics released by the group, one in ten people have come back from holiday to find that their home had been broken into and household items had been stolen. Many of those interviewed stated that a burglary had occurred during the period of a short break or a day trip.

Of course it's more likely that an empty home with be targeted but the government appears to gearing up for an increase in break-ins and other crime as a result of the credit crunch. At the beginning of September, a leaked letter revealed that the Home Secretary believes the economic downturn will lead to rising crime levels.

The document predicted sharp rises in burglary and violence - but less funding to put police on the streets to meet the tide of lawlessness. The letter says: "We can expect additional pressures on acquisitive crime, police finances (and officer numbers), citizen attitudes to migration, and pressure on our free income."

In mid-July, Number Ten is believed to have asked a number of major departments how their responsibilities would be affected by the credit crunch - and what they were doing to prepare.

Now, with the Government's attention focused on more pressing financial matters, it looks likely that the carnage in our supermarkets, offices, cars, suitcases, homes and vegetable patches will continue for some time.

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