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Sports Imitating Fraud

By: Matt Sifferlen

Ah, fraudulent behavior is currently enjoying a bright shiny moment in the sun in today’s pop culture, particularly in the world of sports. Whether it’s a college athlete being duped for months by telephone conversations with a non-existent girlfriend, or the world’s best known cyclist coming clean on a lifetime of deceit, in both cases we’re left shaking our heads and laughing, crying, or cringing while telling ourselves “I’m glad I’m too smart to fall for any of this.” But are you just kidding yourself?

In the case of the college football player, most of us have been scratching our heads wondering how any adult could possibly get strung along for such an extended period of time by such a scam.  But if you take a closer look at the interaction between the athlete and the fraudster, you’ll see that the fraudster deployed some typical tactics that allowed him to keep the scam living and breathing.  In particular, he continuously kept communicating with the athlete via phone and social media, reinforcing the perception that he’s aboveboard and genuinely interested in the athlete’s life.  We see this in commercial fraud interactions too, where the commercial fraudster will perform expected, normal tasks and activities (e.g. making small payments on loans, placing phone calls to lender support staff) that will reinforce the lender’s perception that the fraudster is just another normal client.  But unlike the athlete’s scenario where the fraudster’s story unraveled due to no logical conclusion being planned, commercial fraudsters will string lenders along until they get what they want — then they vanish.  Lenders can’t get too complacent in their fraud prevention efforts, assuming that the mere presence of normal account activity equates to a validation of a client’s authenticity.  To complicate things, while electronic communication methods like text messages, emails, and Twitter or Facebook messages offer many convenience advantages, they are ripe for manipulation by fraudsters who certainly find these methods preferable to any awkward face to face encounters with someone they’re victimizing.

The cyclist that admitted to a lifetime of lies also shines the light on some other tactics that commercial fraudsters might use — using perceived image and reputation to deceive. Fraudsters will often steal identities of licensed professionals (think physicians, dentists) with favorable credit profiles and use their information to apply for commercial credit or services, knowing that they will likely be viewed favorably due to their impressive profiles, at least on paper. In today’s world where lightly staffed underwriting teams struggle to keep up with their workloads, it’s easy to see why this tactic can help increase the odds that an application might escape closer scrutiny.  After all, it’s a doctor’s office so what could possibly go wrong?  A lot, if you’re approving someone who really isn’t the doctor! An objective evaluation and screening process where underwriting and analyst staff consistently verify all applicant data and not just cherry pick the ones that look suspicious on paper can go a long way towards avoiding this typical trap set by commercial fraudsters.

And in the final scenario of art imitating life, there is the recent release of a major motion picture comedy about identify theft.  I’m sure anyone who has been a victim of identity theft won’t find hilarity in the scenes of the victim’s life getting turned upside down, suddenly unable to use his credit cards at the gas station and being asked about transactions that took place somewhere else in the country that he’s never visited.  But undoubtedly many folks will find this humor hilarious because we probably know of some horror story that a friend or acquaintance has shared with us that is similar to one of the wacky scenarios covered in this movie.  So we’ll laugh and take comfort in the fact that we’re too smart to get scammed like this, but if the FTC is stating that identity theft will affect 1 in 6 people each year then we’re fooling ourselves in thinking that our number won’t be up at some point soon.

So what can be learned from these high profile pop culture events?  I think a couple things.  First, know your customers (or athletes, heroes, girlfriends).  It sounds simple, but make sure they are who they say they are.  Whether you’re lending to a business or a consumer, there are tools out there that can enable you to objectively screen your applicants and minimize any bias that might get exploited by fraudsters in a manual review heavy process.  If you’re not cautious and get burnt, you might not have to go on Oprah or Dr. Phil to explain to your management team where things went horribly wrong, but  the level of financial and reputational damage inflicted could be a painful lesson for you and your institution.  Or if you’re really (un)lucky, maybe they’ll make a movie about your story — wouldn’t that be hilarious? (sarcasm intended)