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Operation Podium: Olympic race against fraud

The London 2012 Olympics will be the biggest sporting event in UK history. The massive influx of people will boost London businesses, but the Games also represent a big opportunity for fraudsters.

Detective Superintendent Nick Downing, who runs Operation Podium and Scotland Yard’s 47-officer team dedicated to tackling serious and organised crime targeting the Olympic economy, highlights the key risks.

Media attention has focused on counterfeit tickets and merchandise, and hotel-room scams, but there are other risks to businesses.

Mr Downing and his team recently organised an economic crime prevention conference to cover the main issues.

“Experts from the Bank of England and UK Payments delivered useful advice on dealing with counterfeit currency and familiarisation with the different notes,” he says. “For example, if someone presents a €500 note, which is an unusual note and a high denomination, it is important to make sure it’s genuine.

“Credit card crime is another obvious risk, particularly verifying cards that are not chip-and-pin enabled. The more checks and balances businesses put in, the fewer risks they will face, but they also need to balance the customer experience against their company’s fraud prevention systems.”

Insider fraud is a key consideration as businesses employ extra staff during the Games. Mr Downing advises businesses to check that they are not taking on people with criminal records, so that they avoid putting untrustworthy individuals into a trust environment.

Identity crime is another potential issue. A simple check if someone presents a foreign credit card is to ask for another official form of ID, such as a passport or driving licence. But staff need to know what to look for.

Media attention has focused on counterfeit tickets and merchandise, and hotel-room scams, but there are other risks to businesses

Mr Downing emphasises the importance of staff training and awareness. “For businesses, it is about evaluating the risks and thinking about how they can protect themselves,” he says.

Olympic fraud extends to large-scale criminal activity. A recent case involved a £2.3-million fraud against the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) with fraudsters posing as a legitimate contractor carrying out work on the Olympic Park. Operation Podium’s investigation led to the recovery of £2.14 million and three convictions.

This represented a high-profile triumph for Mr Downing and his team. “The crime itself was very simple,” he says. “However, the case demonstrates the value of Operation Podium in other ways too.

“Having recovered the money, we reviewed all the ODA systems and partners in order to raise awareness of this type of criminality. We intercepted three similar scams and more money was saved through early identification of this type of scam across the wider construction industry.”

Mr Downing’s policing strategy combines proactive investigation with intelligence information and prevention, developing meaningful partnerships with private industry to identify the enablers of crime in particular sectors.

Online fraud is a further challenge. Here the Operation Podium team make a significant difference by working with payment providers to remove legitimate payment mechanisms from fraudulent sites.

“Consequently, some websites are requesting payment through money transfer agents,” he explains. “That should set alarm bells ringing immediately – any legitimate website should have an integrated payment mechanism.”

Mr Downing’s main message is around raising awareness. “Fighting fraud is not all about investigation and prosecuting people,” he says. “From a business perspective, it is about being aware of the threats, and having a robust plan for educating your staff and supporting your customers. If we make it harder for criminals, they will go away.

“The Olympics represent an opportunity for criminals. But, if we are aware of the risks, we have a better chance of mitigating them, and protecting our customers and the public.”

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