Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Chip and PIN means never having to say we'll refund your money (revisited)

I've just been reading about the excellent Ricky Gervais fraud case currently being tried in NE London.

I love a good fraud story.

For my sins, I spent the potentially most productive 15 years of my life checking over company accounts and internal control procedures. By and large, this was very dry work. Hearing really good fraud stories or, better still, identifying really good frauds first hand, was often the only thing that brightened otherwise dull working days.

The best fraud stories are the ones about frauds that are so incredibly retarded you just sit back in awe that people would be so stupid as to believe they could ever pull them off. Actually, and I don't think I'm giving away any professional secrets here, most frauds, including the successful ones, are really dumb. Frauds are usually only discovered by accident or after the fraudster has gone completely doolally and starts stealing so much money discovery is inevitable. Bottom line, if you're careful and don’t get too greedy, fraud can be a pretty steady source of income and it's a lot more common than most people would think. Plus, even when frauds are discovered, and I'm speaking from personal experience here, they are often covered-up for reputational or political reasons.

Anyway, the Ricky Gervais fraud story.

You've got to hand it to the fraudsters. Attempting to steal money from Ricky Gervais by pretending to be Ricky Gervais is pretty special. It's not like he's very famous or has a distinctive voice or anything. Of all the bank accounts the crooked call centre operative had access to, she picked Ricky's account and then got an accomplice to impersonate him on the phone.

'Hello, Ricky Gervais here. You might be familiar with my voice from watching the The Office; voted the most popular British sitcom of all time. I'd like you to sell me £200,000 in gold bullion for cash. A couple of blokes will pop round in a van tomorrow to pick it up'

Masterful stuff and completely successful, right up to the moment they got caught.

Mind you, this is nowhere near as feeble as some other frauds in my collection. Sometimes the fraudsters get caught because they have trouble pronouncing their own name, sometimes they use a name that doesn’t quite fit with their colour, appearance or accent and, my own favourite, sometimes they pretend to be large organisations.

One of the first fraud stories I ever heard was about a post office worker who opened a building society account in the name of Mr Irlando Peverue then deposited cheques sent to the Inland Revenue that he had stolen and edited with a pin and a biro. This may be apocryphal, I don’t know. I do know for sure that people have opened accounts with names like LB Bromley, LB Sutton and LB Merton then tried to deposit cheques sent to those London Boroughs. Whether anyone has been daft enough to try and open accounts under names like LB Waltham Forest or LB Kensington and Chelsea I really don’t know.

I think the banks and building societies are wise to that one now; which must be a real pisser if your name really is Laurence Sutton or Lucy Merton.

There's a serious point here. Fraud is getting easier with each passing year. I spent a couple of hours earlier today trying to clean my PC of all the spy and ad-ware that has accumulated on it over just the last fortnight. I have up to date antivirus and firewall software and that crap still gets through. I've suffered from two instances of credit card cloning in the last two years and don't run personal finance data though my PC any more. But then what do you do? Phone a call centre? The Ricky Gervais fraud was attempted by a call centre team leader. Rely on the post? Not round here you can’t. We've had four important letters go astray over the last year or so.

We are all being moved onto automated transaction systems that are inherently less secure than the old methods they replace; whether we like it or not. These reasons being that, not only are the new systems cheaper for government and big business, they also make it easier for those organisations to shag the individual good and hard by denying liability. Automated systems also enable big organisations to send us ever-increasing volumes of targeted marketing crap. Yes, another dozen pieces of paper with my name, address and clues about my financial arrangements to put through the shredder every week.

Once upon a time we were told that the proliferation of computers would bring about a paperless, better world. The complete opposite happened and we are all swamped with reams of bollocks paper every day; at work and through our letterboxes. Curiously, the only paper that is actually disappearing is the important stuff; ballot papers in Ohio, your signature on a credit card transaction slip, that sort of thing. So, now you can sit back and enjoy US Presidential elections where exit polls and official counts seem to come from another planet, with no way to check the vote. And next time your get hit for £500 you didn’t authorise on your credit card you can’t demand to see the slip with your signature on it.

Roll-on identity cards. I can’t wait …

PS Astrologers and astronomers get very excited at the prospect of unique alignments of planet and stars that occur once in a blue moon. I too am waiting for my own particular kind of rare alignment event. If I wait outside on the street long enough, with a wide-enough lens fitted to my camera, it is a statistical inevitability that I one day will be able to capture all of the following activities taking place simultaneously, rather than at different times of the day …

  • This week's temporary postman delivering my mail to the wrong address
  • That dodgy looking Central American couple who rummage through my bin a couple of times a week
  • Six traffic wardens, sorry parking attendants, of dubious provenance, half of whom are committing some form of benefit fraud, working the street simultaneously
What is the collective term for a group of crooked parking attendants anyway?

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