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Published on: 11th August 2021 by Angela Walton

VCAS calls for review of law on identity theft.

VCAS is calling for a review of the law around identity theft after a Hartlepool woman received almost £20,000 in fines when her car number plate was cloned from an advert she’d placed online.

Safer Communities and its Victim Care and Advice (VCAS) service, which helps support victims of crime across Cleveland, Co Durham and Darlington, were contacted by Claire Herron, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Claire had advertised her Mercedes for sale on Gumtree and was totally unaware the plates had been cloned until speeding fines, congestion charges and threats of arrest warrants began pouring through the letterbox.

Incredibly, because she’d not had any money or physical property stolen, and the person who cloned the plates hadn’t obtained money using her identity, in the eyes of the law no crime had been committed, she was never considered a victim and was considered liable for the fines until she could prove otherwise.

“It was Easter Bank Holiday in 2018, I was just opening my post and there was a fine for me supposedly going through a tunnel somewhere just outside London,” said Claire.  “There was a photograph of a car that looked like mine with my plate on, except it wasn’t my car and I hadn’t been in London.

Watch Claire talking with Steve Turner, Police and Crime Commissioner for Cleveland here.

“I contacted Transport for London straight away and was told it would get sorted out after the Bank Holiday, but it didn’t and that was just the start of a very long nightmare,” she said.

“The fines just kept coming and coming – parking charges, speeding notices and demands from nearly every borough council in London. One was from the City of London Police for driving over London Bridge at 3am, when I was at home in bed in Hartlepool with my car parked outside my house. The car was triggering cameras all over and I couldn’t’ stop it.”.

Identity fraud is not currently considered a crime – using a stolen identity in criminal activity such as obtaining goods or money by deception is. Because Claire had suffered no personal financial loss, she wasn’t considered to be a victim and technically, no crime had been committed. In fact, the councils and companies issuing the unpaid fines and charges were considered to be the victims.

Claire was passed back and forth from Cleveland Police to the Metropolitan Police to no avail – she says no solicitors would help as she hadn’t been accused or found guilty of anything. It was only through the PCC funded charity – Victim Care and Advice Service – that she managed to resolve the nightmare after almost a year.

“I wasn’t considered a criminal or a victim and this didn’t come under the usual identity theft rules – I was just innocently stuck in this automated system that keeps going and there was nothing I could do to stop it – it was incredibly stressful and shocking,” she said.

“I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown and I started to panic; this was potentially quite sinister and what if, whoever had cloned my plates, did something really serious like killing someone in a hit and run or something?

“It really started to impact my mental health badly; I reached a point where I physically couldn’t open my post anymore,” she said.

One morning, Claire received a call from her 80-year-old mother who runs a shop in their local town: “She said there were bailiffs at the shop and they wanted £1200 from me.

“I told her it was all a mistake and to do nothing, that I was on my way. When I got to the shop these big, strapping bailiffs were there, demanding money.  They said they’d been round to my house, gone into the back garden and into my kitchen so they could tell me what type of dog I had and what I’d last had to eat. It was so intimidating and very scary,” said Claire.

“I hadn’t told my mother about it all as I knew it would cause her stress. I tried to explain and went to get all the evidence, but by the time I got back my mother had caved into the pressure and given them £1200. She just couldn’t bear it and wanted them to go away.

“We need a review of the law around ID theft so people like me can be heard and recognised as victims.”

Dave Mead of Safer Communities – VCAS said: “Claire was caught in this automated system and not being viewed as a victim meant she couldn’t be heard at all. Sadly, we’ve seen this happen to others and the level of injustice is appalling; that decent people living normal lives can suddenly find bailiffs on the doorstep pressuring thousands our pounds out of vulnerable relatives – not to mention the daily and lasting emotional stress this campaign of pressure causes.

“Legislation hasn’t kept pace with identity theft, fraud and cyber-crime and we’d like to see a root and branch review of how this works. 1000s of people are really suffering financially and emotionally.”

Eventually, through help and support from VCAS, who enlisted the help of her local MP at the time and the ANPR team, the number plate was entered into the system and the stolen car was picked up soon after.  Claire was refunded the money taken by the bailiffs.

Steve Turner, Police and Crime Commissioner for Cleveland, who met with Claire at VCAS said:” Claire was caught in a nightmare situation, which she didn’t cause and from which she struggled to release herself.

“The fact that cloning her car’s number plate was not considered an offence and, therefore, Claire was not considered a victim, made no difference to the amount of suffering, which she and her family endured over several months.

“It was only thanks to the patient and dedicated work of the team at VCAS that Claire managed to resolve the situation. “We really need to start to consider identity fraud as a crime and look seriously at how we can prevent innocent people, like Claire and her mum, from becoming victims of it.”

Claire’s MP, Jill Mortimer was contacted and agreed to investigate the law as it currently stands to establish if a review is warranted.