On the trail of white collar crooks
During a career pursuing white-collar swindlers and tracking the assets of Mr Bigs across the region, Frank Nesbitt fashioned a career as one of the most experienced police fraud investigators in the North-East. After joining an accountancy firm, he recounts tales from his career to Nigel Stirling.
Sex, booze and money. Former detective Frank Nesbitt reckons these three vices weigh heavily on the minds of most criminals.
"If you look at the reasons for crime in any depth, and analyse it, you can see these as the main reasons for committing crimes," notes Nesbitt, who retired after 30 years in the police force in June.
The 55-year old father-of-two, who spent most of that time as a detective, and was involved in nearly a dozen murder inquiries, spent the last 15 years tracking Tyneside's major swindlers as senior fraud investigator with the Northumbria force's Economic Crime Unit.
While fraud is declining in the North-East, the burly former policeman says this is against a backdrop of falling crime generally.
"There is less crime. But the crime that there is, is more sophisticated. As a society we have moved away from blue collar crime to white collar crime."
Across the UK, fraud is estimated by the Association of British Insurers to cost businesses £16bn a year.
A survey by the North-East Fraud Forum, set up three years ago, suggests this is conservative, and gives a figure of £32bn based on a survey of its 200 members and FTSE 250 companies.
Exasperated by the Government's lacklustre commitment to tackling the rising problem of fraud, Nesbitt has left the force to join Tait Walker's forensic accounting department.
He will help the Newcastle accountant's clients hit by fraud secure convictions at a time when police resources devoted to catching fraudsters have been severely depleted.
"There was a publication by the British Chamber of Commerce in 2003 which basically said that the police had lost their way in helping business fight fraud.
"The foreword was written by Crispian Strachan, our chief constable at Northumbria. I found that quite disconcerting."
Catching white collar crooks is a far cry from gamekeeper's job Nesbitt envisaged for himself when he left Ashington Grammar School in the late 1960s.
Nesbitt, one of five children, found himself at Newcastle's Guildhall, enrolling for the Merchant Navy at the age of 17 after being discouraged from pursuing a career as a professional countryside manager by his coal miner father.
However, his original ambition was to have unintended consequences for his later life on the high seas.
"I went to the training school in Gravesend, Kent, as a deckhand, which is about the lowest you can get on the deck. While there I entered and won a literary competition where my winning essay was on the rearing of pheasants.
"The senior training officer, noticing I had academic qualifications, asked me why I was not a navigating apprentice.
"The magazine I had for winning the competition happened to be a shipping magazine, so I applied for an apprenticeship with Cairns Noble, which had an office at the bottom of Grey Street in Newcastle."
A career in the Merchant Navy followed which was to last from 1968 until 1976 when, after pressure from his first wife to find a land-based occupation following the birth of their child, he entered the police force.
Nesbitt spent an average eight to nine months of the year at sea, with some voyages lasting up to 13 months.
World events occasionally intervened, however: "I was deck officer and on arriving in port in Argentina went up on to the deck and was confronted by the barrel of a tank.
"I was told that there was a revolution on and there would be no work in Argentina that day. It was a case of `viva la revolution' and I went back to bed," Nesbitt notes in his typically dry manner.
"The British fleet was one of the largest then and the reputation of the British was held in great esteem around the world.
"The rates of [cargo] discharge was a lot slower then so we ended up spending a lot of time in the ports.
"It certainly opened my eyes to the nationalities of the world and their opinions. We tend to live in a very closeted world in this country, and you would see the different aspects of life. For instance Brazilians have to be the most cheerful people in the world and Israelis the most honest."
After rising to the rank of Third Navigating Officer, Nesbitt retired from the Merchant Navy and started as a uniformed police officer at Whickham Police Station in 1976.
Unusually, within two weeks of finishing his two-year probationary period, Nesbitt joined Gateshead CID after showing early promise.
"I had a very active probationary period. I stopped anything that moved. If it didn't I asked it why. It helped that Dunston was very much like Ashington, and I was able to mix with the community and was given loads of information."
The first murder inquiry Nesbitt was to work on as a detective was the notorious Room 101 murder of businessman John Welch in the then Swallow Hotel in Newcastle.
No-one was convicted for the crime, but Nesbitt believes that there would have been with today's crime fighting methods.
DNA testing and software tools such as Holmes - which recognises the meaning of words in documents from their context and makes links between similar clues that may have been entered differently by police investigators - would have slashed the time taken to track down criminals like the Yorkshire Ripper.
A knee injury in 1992 confined Nesbitt to desk duties and led to his assignment to the Fraud and Commercial Squad in 1993, before becoming Senior Fraud Investigator in 2000.
Nesbitt, widely regarded as the region's most experienced fraud investigator, has been involved in high-profile frauds such as the conviction of lawyer Donald Halling of Patterson Glenton & Stacey for probate fraud, and was involved in the £42m factoring fraud involving a former AMEC employee who is alleged to have submitted false receipts for work on an oil rig, and has been recently been extradited from Jordan.
And the methods of the fraudsters are getting subtler all the time. A common form of credit card fraud involves the duplication of credit cards using "swipe machines".
"You can go on to the internet and buy one of these machines and blank cards and the software to transfer the details for $168 (£89).
I can quote an instance where an employee of Boots was found with a card swipe machine and two BT cards with two Barclays cards' details on them.
"When the customer would hand over the card he would drop it and swipe it and then take down the pin number as the customer entered it. Chip and pin is not as safe as you might think."
Despite the large, and growing threat, modern businesses do not take fraud seriously enough for Nesbitt's liking.
"Businesses do not accept fraud as a business risk. If you are walking down the street and someone hits you over the head you are going to scream blue murder and want something done about it, or if you are burgled.
"But fraud is a soft crime and who wants to admit to a sucker punch, especially if you have shareholders or customers. You tend to brush it under the carpet. But the employee that leaves without a reference moves next door and does the same thing again.
"The other thing that businesses have a tendency to do once a fraud is committed is to concentrate on getting the money back rather than thinking about how they are going to stop it happening again. Once the money is gone, you aren't going to get it back in most circumstances."
Nesbitt is a director of NEFF, set up in 2003 as a means of raising the profile of fraud in the region.
According to insurer Axa, fraud in the North-East has fallen 32% since NEFF, and Nesbitt says businesses in the region "are taking fraud more seriously".
The forum, which involves regular master classes in fraud detection for the 200 businesses that are members, has been picked up by eight other regions across England and Scotland.
NEFF, which has been incorporated, will know later this year if it has been successful in securing funding from the European Commission to roll the concept out on the Continent.
However, Nesbitt remains frustrated by the Government's attitude to fraud, epitomised by a sinking lid on funding and the Fraud Act, which despite being passed in 2002 is still to be enacted.
"Large police forces like Liverpool and Manchester have tried to disband their economic fraud squads. Though they didn't carry through with it, the emphasis has been moved away by shifting experienced officers on to other work.
"At the Met, the fraud squad will not investigate a theft as a fraud unless £1m or more has been lost, this is despite the realisation by the Government that terrorists are using fraud and identity theft to finance terrorism because it is an easy way of making large amounts of money without being detected."
It is consumers, not the profit margins of big business, however, that ultimately feels the effects of corporate fraud, Nesbitt says.
Nesbitt gives the example of a budget airline which takes credit card bookings over the internet.
"If they do 14 million transactions, it would cost £2.50 a time to do a credit card check on each one. Some two million transactions might be fraudulent.
"But what airline is going to pay £30m to do that. They are already operating in a competitive industry. So the cost of the lost revenue from tickets obtained by fraud are passed on as higher ticket costs."
Nesbitt says the costs of fraud investigation will increasingly be picked up by businesses unless Government priorities change.
"Under the Proceeds of Crimes Act the police get a share of assets seized. I can see the day where police forces will be presented with two frauds and they will go after the one with the best chances of getting assets out of it."
Since joining Tait Walker in June, Nesbitt has taken on four cases of businesses hit by fraud, and sees increasing opportunities for accountants in forensic work involving fraud.
"One of them involved a case of an HR manager conducting the investigation and presenting the evidence to the police. With the best will in the world an HR manager is not a trained investigator. My job is to gather enough evidence to get the case to a point where it is possible to get a criminal or civil resolution. All the police have to do is make the arrest."
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