The UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has said it is making progress in the fight against high-impact crime. The agency published its second annual report on Thursday highlighting increased seizures of Class A drugs and the confiscation of criminals' wealth.
Earlier this week the agency came under fire for abandoning a hunt for 130 crime barons in favour of a broader sweep against 500 criminal organisations involving 15,000 suspected crooks. The agency hit back at suggestions that it had returned to the drawing board after failing to prosecute more than a small number of high-profile targets. In a letter (pdf) to The Times it retorted that at least 36 of the 130 criminals it targeted in Autumn 2006 are in prison in the UK or abroad. William F Hughes, SOCA's director general, also took issue with suggestions that staff morale was low.
"Our initial list of criminals was a point of departure, not a definitive statement about the scale of the problem. We continue to refine the intelligence on serious organised criminals as we have always said we would need to, given the poor state of the intelligence picture at SOCA’s launch and changes in the criminal underworld," Hughes writes.
In its annual report (pdf), SOCA said that it had been involved in seizing almost 90 tonnes of class A drugs at home and abroad, a 20 per cent increase on last year. The seizure figures include the confiscation of cocaine with a street value of £6bn.
SOCA gained new tools and powers in the areas of seizing assets from criminal gangs over the last year. It said it served 41 financial reporting orders, which oblige convicted criminals to disclose their finances prior to seizure; 53 orders compelling suspects to hand over information about their finances; and ten ancillary orders, which impose travel or company directorship restrictions on the targets of investigation.
The agency reported that UK courts had frozen £46m in criminal assets. SOCA said that it appointed an additional 35 financial investigators during the year, although it doesn't say whether these extra people come when the Assets Recovery Agency merged with SOCA back in April.
SOCA said 2,000 "serious organised criminals" were the subject of investigations during the twelve months after April 2007, during which time it "successfully resolved" 22 kidnaps and a blackmail plot against supermarket chain Tesco.
During the year up to April 2008, SOCA said it issued 46 warnings of criminal threats to 2,500 private sector organisations. "One bank alone reported an estimated loss of £500,000 prevented as a result of a single alert," it said.
SOCA was established on 1 April 2006 following a merger of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), the investigative arm of HM Revenue & Customs on serious drug trafficking, and the Immigration Service's unit dealing with people trafficking.
Its top priorities in fighting drug dealing and organised immigration crime have prompted criticism from sections of the security community, who reckon the fight against cybercrime is not getting the resources it deserves since the absorption of the NHTCU.
In its annual review the agency highlights one cybercrime success story as well as others covering the foiling of a heroin-in-carpets smuggling ring and arms smuggling from Lithuania. The cybercrime case, Operation Ajowan, involved the trade in stolen credit card and identity details on the web. One of the convicted conspirators was responsible for potential losses of more than £6m, SOCA reports.
The 54-page report focuses on SOCA's intelligence gathering and organisation priorities, as set by the Home Office. It doesn't say a great deal about the fight against cybercrime, but it does mention that the agency successfully upgraded its storage and analysis IT systems - no small feat for a government agency, given the government's long list of IT failures.
It does say that thousands of "fake financial instruments" valued at around £8m and bound for the UK were seized as part of an international initiative against mass marketing fraud, without going into details. The report also outlines general goals in "countering the exploitation of technology by serious organised crime" and reducing identity fraud and counterfeiting, again without dealing with specifics.
The agency earlier published its annual plan for 2008/09 which maintain its traditional focus on stamping down the trade in hard drugs and combating people smuggling. The fight against drugs gets 43 per cent of SOCA's budget, while the fight against fraud - a category that includes cybercrime - gets just five per cent of the pie. During 2008/09, SOCA will employ around 4,000 "full-time equivalent" staff, it said.
Going after criminals' assets is a key priority for the agency next year. It aims to seize £6m in cash, obtain at least £46m in confiscation orders (a figure that includes £4m from criminal casework inherited from the ARA) as well as obtaining £16m through civil lawsuits against crooks. ®