Fraudian Slip

Remember when Dr Jenny Harries, the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, first attended the daily Government briefings? She was drowning in an ocean of kudos.

Clear, articulate, and factual with ‘a measured tone’. She was, in March, an ‘unlikely hero’. Of course, at the start of this whole mess, much was unknown, and we were firmly rooted in the theoretical stage. Not even a hubcap had pinged off the wagon’s wheels, which were still rolling along in first gear. Perfect scientist territory. No emerging, grim statistics and no pointing fingers.

At the time, it did however strike me that this was an example of punishment praise – bigging up an individual in order to sharpen the contrast between their performance and the ones you don’t praise and therefore shame. By this point, our Government had already started to bumble and blag. There was a growing sense that we’d elected a band of charlatans who were going to screw us over through their sheer unmitigated incompetence.

This rather weird, loaded, and weaponised praise happens a lot in the workplace and usually backfires when the appraisee later drops a mighty clanger, and the formerly so effusive schemers forcibly gag themselves to duck exposure for their partisan plaudits and conniving. It’s just how it often rolls. The games people play.

This week, when asked about the susceptibility of the Track and Trace scheme to scams, Dr Harries stated that it would be very evident when you received contact that callers would be professionally trained individuals monitored by a group of senior clinical professionals.

Cue high-fives from the scamming community and facepalms from everybody else.

Yes, it is the case that some scams are a numbers game, and consequently fraudsters deliberately employ shoddy methods so that only true dimwits remain on the hook. There’s a logic to this. They therefore avoid spending time with ‘marks’ who end up pulling the plug later down the line without having coughed up. If a ‘mark’ is so dim that they don’t spot the spelling errors on an email, or don’t recognise that the ‘Tax Office’ is not a genuine Government department, the chances are that they’ll be taken all the way down the line to Mugville.

It’s lean fraud, and it pays.

However, that’s just one fraudulent flavour. Other scams run from data leaks or stem from local intelligence, and these are as slick as the real deal. Theft perpetuated by corrupt contact centre workers might actually be bona fide in terms of training but off-grid with legitimacy of objectives. In any event, after a 30-minute briefing, any old contact centre lag could run through a script and pull off a convincing turn with a customer. With 20 calls under their belt, they’d be indistinguishable from the real deal. It’s how outsourcing companies actually function. Agents are trained in core skills and are topped up with a product brief.

You could receive 3 calls in one day from your bank, mobile phone supplier, and your online shopping provider, and every call could come from the same office. You might even get the same caller on some or all. It’s how it works.

So, as for any confidence that such people would evidently be monitored by senior professionals, I think not. I don’t think that most punters would even be able to picture the concept of an outsourced contact centre unless they had cause to visit or work in one. I certainly wouldn’t have.

Therefore, no need for Action Fraud to disband just yet. Well, not on the fallacious grounds that deceptive pilfering can now be comfortably spotted. We might disband Inaction Fraud (for that is how the Police themselves term it) for the reason that it’s no more than a facade that creates space for the thin blue line to chase down other offence types that are deemed to be more serious, less labour-intensive, and easier to prove.

But back to the rather tragic answer fudge, which highlights a not unusual problem with question-and-answer situations when credibility stakes are high. You see it all the time in interviews. The interviewee feels that they must say something because an admission of a knowledge gap is seemingly a loose thread attached to one’s sense of inferiority. One sharp yank, and they’ll be spinning and embarrassingly unravelled.

Our brains are hardwired to meeting the goal of demonstrable expertise. People cannot get their heads around the concept of realistic expectations and that a knowledge gap is only a slither of downside if it sits within one’s own remit.

Yet if the next question had been on monkey AIDS in Belize, she’d have likely had a stab at it.

And all she had to say was that counter-fraud was not her gig, but it would be catered for. Within a few days, some obscure Civil Service Policy Lead would have spunked up a safeguarding process. Yes, would have been inconsistent, not fit for purpose and generally hopeless, but that’s their job. To provide policies and of course, to be hopeless. At worst, the guilty party would have been transferred to the DVLA or to DEFRA.

The ease at which Dr Harries slipped reflects a deeper malaise in Government: the disconnect between fact and message. None of this current debacle has been thought through.

There. Is. No. Plan.

Now, according to the rules of media spin, there will now be no more praise for Jenny, even if she manages to whip up a quick-over-the counter, cancer-curative milkshake. Her lemon’s been squeezed.

The trouble is, the charlatans at the helm have almost squeezed ours too.

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