Communications are Essential as a Force Multiplier in Fraud Investigations

TASA ID: 8635

While most news broadcasts lead with headlines of violent crime and terrorist acts; white collar crimes, like scams and frauds present a serious problem. According to the FBI, white collar crime costs the United States over $300 billion a year. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, who published the 2016 “Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse” paint a far graver picture; estimating that the typical organization loses 5% of its revenues each year to fraud. Based on the 2015 Commerce Department estimates; the U.S. gross domestic product of $17.9 trillion, American businesses lost about $895 billion to fraud in 2016.

If these losses weren’t bad enough, advances in technology are apparently drastically increasing the amount of scams and frauds personally targeting average citizens. According to a survey last year of over 1,000 Americans by telecom service company First Orion, roughly 95% of people surveyed say they’ve gotten a call from a telemarketer in the past six months; a jump from 84% in 2015. While some of the respondents were not on the National Do-Not-Call Registry or may have inadvertently placed themselves on a list; a 13% surge in phone scams, with 69% of respondents saying they’ve gotten at least one scam call over the past six months has occurred, which are four times as many as in 2015. The phone is only one mechanism for fraud. While many laughingly recall the “Nigerian Email Scams” of a few years ago, these advance-fee scams are thriving in other forms.

The truth is, Americans have become comfortable putting their Personally Identifiable Information (PII) on Social Media, online business applications and in emails; rates of frauds like identity theft are skyrocketing. Last year alone, 15.4 million consumers were the victims of identity theft, a 17.5% increase from the previous year. With this information, thieves can open new accounts in our names, steal from our existing accounts, and use it as a veil of authenticity during the commission of scams. Account takeover fraud, a crime akin to credit card fraud in where criminals gain access to victims' bank or credit card accounts and then make unauthorized transactions on the account; skyrocketed by more than 45% year over year in 2017's second quarter. This cost merchants and banks a whopping $3.3 billion in just three months. The 2017 “Identity Fraud Study” by Javelin Strategy reported account takeover incidents increased 61% in just one year.

Whether it be on the phone, online or by having your pocket picked on the subway; these scams all occur because PII is illicitly obtained. PII is stolen in a variety of ways; some of the most common methods of stealing data online include malware, phishing, and data breaches. Last year, a data breach at Equifax, one of the three credit rating companies used by the financial sector, affected 143 million Americans in one case alone. Data security company Symantec estimates that 54.3% of all email is spam and that there are nearly 1.6 million blocked web attacks each day; with phishing attacks accounting for roughly one of every 1,975 emails. Phone scams are getting more and more creative as well. Fraudulent robocalls claiming to be from the IRS have netted $54 million from unsuspecting victims since October 2013, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. In addition to the tax scams, the Federal Trade Commission, the agency responsible for the National Do-Not-Call Registry; warns about callers posing as debt collectors, recruiters and sweepstakes awards. 
With extremely limited resources and hi-tech perpetrators working beyond jurisdictional boundaries, deterrence through law enforcement and regulatory agencies can go only so far in preventing and enforcing white collar crime. However, in communicating up-to-the minute information on the trends of these crimes and tips for preventing them; there is huge potential for the agencies and corporate security professionals charged with the detection of these scams to create a force multiplier and have third parties become active participants in crafting and implementing strategies for the interdiction of white-collar crimes. If investigators can step from behind the shadows and create a more systematic approach to communications, the eyes and ears of citizens, local law enforcement and corporations can all be “deputized” to help you handle the investigative deluge of white collar crime.

A force multiplier describes the identification of others who may have the same goal, and creating a relationship with them to assist you in achieving yours. Typically, public interaction is a form of communications; who rarely interacts with investigators in a corporate setting, and in law enforcement; usually acts as a mechanism to  broadcast specific requests for information regarding a crime (such as a lookout/BOLO) or announcement that an arrest was made.

In using communications or social media, these can only be a force multiplier when it becomes part of your regular toolkit vs. a Public Information Officer being the only member authorized to use the official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Regular communication from a variety of sources includes:

  • Community meetings,
  • Website updates/Blogging,
  • Outreach to offline communities (elderly, immigrant),
  • Partnering with local faith-based, social or political leaders,
  • Public/Private partnerships with businesses (such as Crime Prevention Councils, InfraGard, etc).

Communications or social media will help get information about what to avoid, look out for, and how to report scams to citizens and the media in a positive way. By sharing information with citizens, you are enabling them to share the information they feel is relevant to them in their community, which helps you get your message out. Consider local law enforcement. For years, they have been sharing relevant information about traffic or crime issues that affect people’s immediate lives. However, while most local law enforcement officials are the first entity in where scams and frauds are reported, most do not investigate them as they are cross-jurisdictional. Even in big cities like Philadelphia and Washington, DC; it has been my experience that aside from an initial incident report, most local officers simply refer the victim to their banks, the FBI’s internet crimes complaint center (IC3) or the Federal Trade Commission. If you work for a financial or telecom institution, state attorney general or related agency; how often has your agency “hit the road” and provided free training and literature to these local law enforcement officials who see these reports daily?

By reaching out to local law enforcement, corporate security and the community; you are empowering them with the ability to be able to address these issues in a way that improves the quality of your investigative leads while at the same time showing the community that your organization is listening and cares about their concerns.

Investigating fraud is like building the better mousetrap. With these crimes on the rise due to technological advancements; communicating ways to reduce victimization needs to be a regular, systematic task. However, many of the proactive steps to decrease exposure and mitigate frauds are simple in nature; and can be communicated to your stakeholders.

These may include:

  • Never say “yes” on the phone. Scams exist to make you record you saying yes so that they can apply it to a fraudulent agreement. Practice phrases like “how may I help you” instead of “yes” or “I agree” on a survey or solicitation.
  • f you didn’t apply for a sweepstakes or buy a prize entry, you likely haven’t won anything. Be extremely wary of unknown callers who promise “free” bonuses or services, like vacations or loan consolidations. Question any fees, such as shipping and handling that you’d need to pay in order to get prizes or bonuses.
  • The simplest way to avoid getting caught up in a scam call is to avoid answering your phone whenever you see an unknown number. New technologies are enabling scams using “spoofed” phone numbers that may have exchanges local to your community. A good way to recognize this is when a +1 (international access and country code) is in front of what looks to be a local number on your caller ID.
  • Read email addresses before opening or replying to emails. Just like phone numbers, criminals “spoof” email accounts to make them look as if they are coming from someone you know. Open the details of a sender or hover above the sender in an email to verify that it is coming from a legitimate sender.
  • Stop giving out your PII. If a [nongovernmental] organization still uses a Social Security Number to identify you, they are behind the times. Names, dates or birth and social security numbers are a combination that enables identity theft. Politely decline and offer to give alternative information in writing applications.
  • The government does not call you on enforcement matters. The IRS, HHS, VA and other agencies still use mailed notices and in-person appointments to convey official information. If you receive a call, ask for an appointment or written communication (not email). If suspicious, call your local FBI field office.
  • Develop unique passwords across all of your accounts. If you use the same password and usernames on accounts used elsewhere, you’re making yourself a soft target for Phishing. Unless one is unusually savvy with memorizing odd word combinations or develops a highly sophisticated system, using unique, strong passwords (using letters, numbers, and symbols) across every single site where an account is kept is almost impossible, but remember to never store these passwords in a non-secure manner.
  • Pay with credit, not debit cards. Using credit cards removes considerable fraud risks posed with checks or debit cards. This is largely because consumers are limited to $50 of liability when credit card fraud is reported in a timely manner; and is reporting losses on a credit card bill vs. those that have been siphoned from their bank accounts. In the same vein, writing personal checks should be avoided whenever possible. Your name, address, banking institution, routing number, and bank account number are all printed on the front of your personal checks for the world to see.
  • Monitor your finances closely; keeping tabs on checking, savings, brokerage, credit card and online financial accounts (like PayPal or Bit Coin) and immediately report any suspicious activity.

Unfortunately, with a finite number of prosecutors and law enforcement personnel; it is impossible for the state and federal government to stop all of these scams and frauds. However, with help from the community at large; public and corporate investigators can get smarter in how we prevent and enforce white collar crime. As Americans, the world’s largest consumers; making ourselves “harder targets” for fraud will bring the cost of white collar crime down which will be beneficial to everyone’s bottom line.

Author (TASA ID: 8635), MA, CPP, CESP is the former Director, Office of Investigations at the American Board of Internal Medicine. He has served in both federal & municipal law enforcement officer, intelligence and homeland security capacities throughout the US. He currently serves as a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership and is TASA-Registered Expert Witness.The author (TASA ID: 8635) is available for consultation. 

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author (TASA ID: 8635). Contact for any questions.

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