An Ethical Dilemma

I’m a retired Detective Chief Superintendent from the Metropolitan Police and one of my two blogging partners is an ex Head of Action Fraud. The other is an accomplished, although now reformed, fraudster. After leaving the Met, we had worked in ‘banking intelligence’ for a few years and had been amazed at the lack of any real appetite by the banks to prevent fraud. Their focus appeared to be on compliance with various banking rules and regulations designed to satisfy the regulator rather than protect their customer’s life savings. Something had to be done if things were to change.

After much soul-searching we concluded that our own knowledge was good, but had some huge gaps. We knew how police investigated fraud, but that was very one-dimensional. What we really needed to complete the picture was someone who had not only been a fraudster, but someone who was good at it. We didn’t decide to work with ‘the enemy’ lightly and we realised that such a decision would upset some people. The guy we approached had never been arrested let alone charged or convicted. He was known to us as someone who had attracted a great deal of suspicion but, despite the efforts of several officers over many years, nothing had come of it.

Persuading him was not easy and I’m sure he found our first conversations as awkward as we did. We assured him that we would never divulge his true identity but we also made it clear that if we ever thought he had returned to being a fraudster we would do everything we could to convict him. We now find ourselves sitting down with him in coffee shops and chatting about our common interest – fraud. To the casual observer, we could easily pass for 3 friends discussing football. We smile, we laugh and we all take turns in buying hideously overpriced coffees, and as alien as it may seem to many of you – we find ourselves liking him. Traditional means of preventing fraud have largely failed. Perhaps this slightly weird approach stands a chance!

Our initial research made it abundantly clear that not everyone agrees with the idea of two retired cops working with an accomplished, albeit reformed, criminal. In order to provide some context for this radical decision to collaborate with an ex fraudster, I though it might be useful to rehearse how we have got to where we are now and the environment in which we are currently operating.

I am a retired Detective Chief Superintendent from the Metropolitan Police. For those looking for some additional corroboration, this is my Linkedin profile;

I’ve also worked for ten years in what might be referred to as ‘Banking Intelligence’. After retirement from the Police, the last skills I thought I might ever have to draw upon again were those of informant handling and hostage negotiation! More on that later.

During my spell working in banking, along with my colleague Steve Proffitt (another retired cop and a former Head of Action Fraud) we found that the focus for those working in financial crime roles tended to be on compliance with banking rules and regulations rather than what most people would consider to be fraud.

Chatting to serving officers also confirmed our view that fraud was still being massively underreported. But even with these artificially low levels, Police were never going to have the resources to arrest their way out of the problem. It seemed obvious that helping to prevent people becoming victims of fraud in the first place must form the central plank of any sustainable strategy. In fact, in 1829 the first commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, Sir Richard Mayne, said The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime: so what we are suggesting is hardly anything new.

We were also aware that there is a huge knowledge gap in the general public’s understanding of how fraudsters actually operate; how they target potential victims, the mechanics of particular scams and how they stay a couple of steps ahead of law enforcement. Worryingly, we believe that this very same knowledge gap applies to many working in financial services.

So how could we leverage our own skills and experience to improve things? We decided that the most effective way of raising an awareness of how the bad guys operate was to write a blog. Like most people, we had read a few blogs, but those we had looked at were either too legalistic or technical and were aimed at an audience who were already engaged and employed within specific areas of compliance. This was not where we wanted to be. We are not aiming at those people – we are aiming to reach their wives, mums, dads and children.

A blog by a couple of ex-cops risked skewing things towards police procedure – there is enough on television already. We needed something significantly different. It was at this point I drew upon an old adage used in hostage negotiation: ’think the unthinkable’. In this case, we decided (after a great deal of soul-searching) to talk to someone who had been suspected of being involved in and orchestrating various types of fraud, but who had never even been arrested.

When we first suggested the idea, the guy in question literally laughed in our faces. He found it bizarre that someone who had previously tried to prove his involvement in a large-scale fraud should later approach him and ask for his help. The power dynamic had clearly shifted. In truth, if he had immediately agreed to our proposal, we would have been amazed and also a little bit worried at the motivation behind his willingness.

We were, however, encouraged by the fact that he then went on to ask several questions regarding our own motivation, the risk of him being identified by his former ‘colleagues’ and what guarantees he would have that we would not disclose his true identity. It seemed that he actually wanted us to persuade him. This is where the negotiator skills came in. It’s not about forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do; it’s more about influencing someone to at least think about an alternative course of action.

We met him several times before we actually obtained his agreement to assist. During each meeting we learned a little more about him. We always met somewhere very public and, to his credit, he was always on time. Whilst we have now developed a degree of trust, it was not always that way. Just like handling high-risk informants, we watched him complete anti-surveillance drills on his route to the meeting. He has asked us to prove we were not recording the conversation by searching us and turning our mobiles off.

We’ve also checked him out via other sources to make sure he really has reformed. Experience of working with intelligent informants is that you need to be completely sure of who is in charge and who is running who!

He is in his mid-40s and has a degree from a good university. He is from a ‘nice’ family and they clearly have no idea about his past. He wears a subtle Rolex, drives a newish car, and lives in a nice flat in a gentrified part of London. Understandably there are certain areas of his life that he won’t go into. As much as it pains me to say this – we enjoy his company. He is clever, articulate and well-read and if you didn’t know he had been an accomplished fraudster you would quite happily introduce him to your friends.

Whilst he struggled with the idea of working with ‘the enemy’ – so did we. If there was a seminal moment during those initial conversations that persuaded him to work with us to help reduce the number of potential victims of fraud, it was when he described how his own parents were scammed.

The feedback we have received challenging the ethics/morality of working with ‘someone like him’ came as no great surprise. We’ve chatted to a number of those people, and of note (1) none were ex cops and (2) none had been the victim of a fraud. Whilst I accept their opinions are valid I’m not convinced they understand the trauma caused by being a victim of this type of crime or the Police’s lack of ability to respond to such a prolific offence.

We believe the reality of the situation is that, despite any protestations to the contrary – fraud is not a priority for Police. They are aware that because of the embarrassment caused by admitting to being ‘duped’ – especially in romance scams, fraud is massively underreported. As a result the scale and complexity of the problems is not understood, and without truly understanding the problem it is impossible to come up with workable solutions.

There are simply too many fraudsters, too many offences, and too few cops. Lower-level fraud is, in many cases, is not investigated by detectives, but rather is left to the uniformed response officers. These are the officers who run towards explosions, crazed gunmen or terrorists whilst everyone else is running away. Their individual workload is such that they do not have the capacity or indeed the skill-set to investigate these crimes properly. As a result, you will not be surprised to learn that very few result in any meaningful investigation or an arrest, let alone a prosecution. However, as far as victims are concerned, it is clear that fraud ruins people’s lives. I’m aware of some who have found the trauma so great that they have killed themselves.

It is against this backdrop that we decided that, on balance, dealing with our reformed fraudster to provide education and insight into the tradecraft and methodology of fraudsters was a good thing. We made it clear from the outset that if we discovered he was not genuinely reformed and had gone back to his old ways – we will inform Police immediately. In return for him providing us with the detail behind how scams are carried out, we have agreed never to identify him. We have had a number of requests from the mainstream media to interview us all to explore this strange relationship, but irrespective of any assurances made to protect his identity, he has steadfastly refused to participate and we have respected that.

In an ideal world, reporting and intelligence systems would be set up to encourage and accurately record all allegations of fraud. Police would be adequately resourced to investigate offences and analyse trends and as a result, fraudsters would believe there was a significant risk of being caught. We are a million miles away from there.

We could have easily decided that this was ‘not our problem’. We could have decided to do something else aimed at earning an income rather than publishing a blog that provides nothing whatsoever. We could have decided that we would not soil our hands dealing with ex-criminals – notwithstanding their ability to provide the much needed insight that only they can provide. Only time will tell if we are right or wrong, but so far it feels right and 99% of the feedback seems to support that belief.

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