Ep. 02: The fake CEO

Season 001

Episode 001

Guest

Annalisa

Author

Federica Manzitti

Language

English

Duration

17:28

Credits

Federica Manzitti (author)
Cristiano Cervoni (sound design)
Georgia Walker (narrator)
Bertrand Chaumeton (music)

Annalisa

Learn from Annalisa, a prominent corporate investigator with a wealth of experience. She has been at the forefront of sensitive internal investigations and has worked on uncovering fraud for some of the world’s largest corporations. Renowned for her astute mind and unwavering commitment to the truth, Annalisa tells Federica Manzitti how she assisted a large corporation when faced with a devious fraud that anyone of us could have fallen for.

I got a call from a colleague. And the colleague said you’re needed because there has been a huge fraud perpetuated against a well-known company. $50 million has been stolen. So, I put the phone down, packed, got on a plane, and went. These are master manipulators, and you don’t stand a chance. My goal was to find out exactly what had happened.

Narrator

This is the story of a scam. A million-dollar scam. A scam like many others around the world, even if most of them never become public knowledge. Annalisa, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been a corporate investigator for over 25 years. She tells us a true story: in which ambition is seduced by flattery; in which charisma cannot be separated from manipulation.

Annalisa

So, it all started 12 years ago. Someone had rung up a small subsidiary. And basically, pretended to be the CEO. And from there they had managed to have this guy transfer money.

Narrator

Annalisa was told that an ambitious, competent manager in his early 40s working for a southern Europe subsidiary of a very well-known company had answered a call from company’s CEO.

Annalisa

So, the first thing I decided to do was take him out to a cafe because he was quite shaken. And it’s hard for somebody who obviously such a professional, so capable, so successful, having to admit that he has transferred $50 million to a criminal.

Narrator

This was one of the first cases of CEO fraud, in which a skilled criminal poses as a senior person in a company in order to persuade staff to transfer large amounts of money to a third party. According to digital security experts, this type of fraud now affects more than 400 companies a day. In the past three years alone, more than 22,000 victims around the world have lost around 3 billion dollars.

Annalisa

He sat in the cafe, and he told me that he’d been going through his normal day. And the phone rang, and the CEO was the CEO on the phone. Now, the CEO is actually quite well-known, and you can find him on YouTube. He is a real character, a personality, quite aggressive. And he’s not somebody you say no to. And he told this country manager that he’d been watching his career progression and he’d been specially chosen, and he flattered the country manager. So, he’s a chosen one. But he said four special projects and that they had decided to acquire another company, but it had to be totally confidential. And he mustn’t tell anyone else. And the money had to be transferred that day. And because it was so confidential, a special lawyer was going to be used his own personal lawyer, and he gave the name and the number on the website.

Narrator

In the café Annalisa looked at the man in front of her. He was very well-dressed, but you could tell that he hadn’t slept. He told her all the details of the last, fateful hours of his life.

Annalisa

He was clever, he did the right thing. So, although he said he wasn’t suspecting anything at this point. I mean, it was the CEO ringing him. He recognized his voice. Not only that, the CEO knew stuff. He talked about the CFO and he called him Bill, not William. And he talked about another marketing manager, and he called her Vicki, not Victoria. He knew how people call themselves in the office. He knew stuff. So, there was no way that there was any suspicion that this wasn’t the CEO. But nonetheless, he did look up the website of the lawyer and he looked up the lawyer and the lawyer existed. It existed in more than one place on the Internet. So, he felt completely reassured.

Narrator

At this point the manager of the subsidiary called his local chief financial officer and together they decided to call the lawyer, but the lawyer himself didn’t answer the phone.

Annalisa

Of course not. It went through to reception. And you had a woman who picked up the phone and there was some noise in the background, and she said, let me see if I can put you through. And then she said: “Could you hold? Because he’s on another call”. So, they held and they were put through, and it all was completely legitimate And the lawyer said, Oh, yes, I’ve been expecting your call in. You’ll need to do it very, very quickly because the banking day is nearly finished and they then looked at the email and they executed it. And they sent the money.

And they went to celebrate because they’d been picked. Their little subsidiary had been picked by the CEO and they were flattered, and they were happy that they had done this special deal. And while they were drinking, the doubt started to come in and they started to worry. Because the time pressure by then was off and they started to think that’s a bit odd. Why did they choose us? Why did they choose an outside counsel? And they started to worry and worry.

Now, the culture of that company wasn’t a culture that you could. You easily felt that you could own up to a problem. So, they didn’t feel that in the middle of the night they could disturb anyone. So, they decided to wait until the head office opened. So, they had a very, very bad night and they rang up as soon as head office opened, and they were put through to the secretary of the CEO and the CEO had not rung them. And that’s when their world fell apart.

Narrator

The man sitting in the café was now on the verge of tears. A real professional, really good at his job, he sees his whole career crumbling to nothing.

Annalisa

I try to make him feel better because, frankly, he’d been targeted, which we’ll get to by an incredibly professional gang. These are master manipulators. And you don’t stand a chance unless you’ve been made aware. And who 12 years ago was aware? Very few people. I’d actually done one of these investigations before, which is one of the reasons that I was called to do this. I was aware of it. But who suspects that somebody is going to ring up and impersonate your boss?

Narrator

While they were sitting in the café, the phone rang again. It was a call from the Chief Financial Officer from the head office reporting on the stolen money.

Annalisa

Hats off to him. He had an amazing network and he had got on the phone. He hadn’t known exactly where that money was being transferred. And he had contacts in that bank which was in Asia. And he had managed to get that money back. So, that pressure was off and you could just see the guy in front of me. He was just like. At least that. At least. That. At least I haven’t caused this huge hole.

Narrator

That was good news, but other questions still had to be answered. How had this happened? Who had made it happen?

Annalisa

We then interviewed a lot of people This is an international company with subsidiaries all around the world, And what we discovered, we had a huge timeline. And on the timeline, we discovered that they had started to have some very strange calls over a year ago. And what these gangs do, basically they go to work. They all go to work in a little what’s called a boiler room or a room. That prize is so huge. 15 million, 20 million, 30 million that it’s worth their while investing in research. And their goal is to find out as much as they can about their target company. So, they ring up and they ring up and they pretend they’re a supplier. and they’ll ask, Oh, who do I talk to in that department? Who’s the CFO in that department? And gradually they listen, and they learn and they realize what people are called, who reports to whom. And slowly by ringing they put a puzzle piece together because their goal is for when the CEO, the fakes hearings that he sounds legitimate so that nobody suspects him. So that’s what we discovered. And of course, nobody reported it because there was no reporting, there was no processes in place. I mean, absolutely no processes. And why should that be? You know, you get a funny call. Well, that’s a bit weird. And you put the phone down.

Narrator

Something is still waiting for an answer: how do they choose their victim?

Annalisa

Victim is probably the wrong word, but who’s the best target for the manipulation? And it is somebody who perhaps is more susceptible to flattery or to wanting to prove themselves. So then at the same time we were doing desk research into who the gang was. Right. Now, when you look at a sophisticated gang like this, you can’t just jump online. You need to disguise who you are because you do not want them to know that you’re looking at them because they are there. I use Tor, the onion ring, which anybody can download and it’s a browser, anonymous browser. There’s a button that you can click and it will change the route that you’re taking to get to the search engine. So, it starts off, for example, Paris, Istanbul, Athens and Tokyo, and then you just press it again and it will change, but it will also automatically change every 30 seconds or so, which, again, when you’re looking when you’re doing the investigation and you see somebody is using that, you know that they know what they’re doing. But I also use a virtual private network, which you might all be familiar with when you want to watch the BBC or something and you’re not in the UK and you can put your VPN on, and it changes where it looks like you’re setting. The other thing that you have to realize about the Internet when you do Internet investigations is nobody is who they think they are. you can have a website and it says Are you at the end does not mean you’re in Russia. You can have a telephone number from wherever you like and you can be sitting wherever you like. So, everything on the internet isn’t what it seems.

Narrator

So, Annalisa and her team went online and began to uncover the gang’s activities. They soon realized that the gang used multiple fake websites to make their stories seem believable, but the lawyer did exist: the gang had simply stolen his identity. Annalisa even tracked down the whereabouts of the key member of the gang to rented accommodation in Manila.

Annalisa

We also found that they were organizing a conference. Unbelievable, right? These guys have a conference, and they swap names. They swap names of individuals who they feel are soft touches. So anybody listening out there, if you’ve been targeted at all and if you’ve responded to an email or clicked on a hyperlink or in some way been defrauded, be aware because you will be targeted again because you get on these lists. And they exchange lists with each other.

Narrator

According to FBI statistics, CEO fraud is reaching epidemic levels. 26 billion dollars were lost to this scam. Between May 2018 and July 2019 alone, there was a 100% increase in identified global losses. The scam has been reported in all 50 states of the US and in 150 countries. Why are so few caught and prosecuted?

Annalisa

The companies don’t tell anybody about it. It’s very rare that these are reported in the press because it’s embarrassing. So, if the money is stolen they never admit it. They cover it up. If you have a really, really good CFO, which this company did, they didn’t lose the money and they decided not to prosecute. Not to go ahead. Why? Too complicated. You have multi jurisdictions. You don’t know where to go after them. What do you go after? The assets are all already not there because these people are just living high level life. But these are dangerous people, and they’re out there.

So, when it was all finished, I was asked also to go along and explain to the real CEO what had happened. And that was an experience in itself because it was a company where there’s a real threat. I mean, he’s really strong cult, you know, cult like figure and people bopping and bulling and a real sort of sense of almost fear. and I was just really interested in meeting him. But he was very imposing. And you went into this room, and it was all dark wood and it smells of now highly polished and this really thick plush carpet. And we you sort of paint along. And he was right at the end behind this desk, which sort of had some piled up leather books, sat there with his gold cufflinks and his huge silk tie. And my goal in it, as well as telling him the results which we’ve already gone through, was also to really let him know that anybody could fall for a master manipulator. And I think we succeeded because after the briefing, the country manager is still there. In fact, he’s even been promoted. So that makes me feel good because I, I really think it wasn’t his fault. I think it could happen to anyone, especially 12 years ago.

But don’t beat yourself up too much. If you do fall for a master manipulator, you’re not expecting it. Human beings on the whole, I think are nice and it’s quite a shame that we have these individuals around the place. But that’s life.

Narrator

This is the story of a scam: the story of how knowledge, competence, the capacity to listen and understand, as well as investigative skills and fast reactions were able solve a problem that might easily have cost more than 50 million dollars.

Thanks to Annalisa, who would like to remain anonymous, for giving us the benefit of her 25 years of professional knowledge.

More episodes

INTELLIGENCE

Corporate Contests