Serious Fraud Office told to gear up for onslaught of pandemic fraud

Linda J. Dodson

The pandemic could provide the catalyst for the prosecutor to launch more cases and improve its mixed performance during recent months. 

A record €991m (£895m) settlement with Airbus for “endemic” bribery was the largest of four such deals in the past year but the acquittal of all defendants in a long-running Barclays trial was a major blow. 

Corporate lawyers see disputes and investigations as a counter-cyclical business. When the economy slumps, cases spike. 

Sinking businesses and panicked executives provide an environment rich with fraud risk. 

Economic crashes often lead to previous bad behaviour being uncovered as lawyers, accountants and insolvency practitioners rake through the corporate ashes of failed businesses. 

“We’re going to see a lot of pandemic-related fraud,” says Aziz Rahman, senior partner at law firm Rahman Ravelli. Healthcare and investment-related scams as well as price-fixing will be prominent, he predicts. 

Osofsky has signalled she is ready to grab pandemic-related cases with both hands, saying she is keen to take on cases where people have been harmed. 

The crash of 2020 has been met with an unprecedented wall of public money in the form of business loans, grants, wage support and more, offering another incentive for fraudsters to take advantage.

“A large number of companies are in receipt of bailout funds – huge amounts of money – and some of that money will inevitably go astray,” says Tate. 

“A lot of this fraud is going to relate to the misuse of our [taxpayer] money so there is a real public interest in investigating those matters and acting as a deterrent for future [misuse] of bailout funds.”

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 7.6pc of the £18.4bn spent on universal credit in 2019-2020 was attributable to fraudulent overpayments. Even a much lower rate of fraud on grants, furlough and subsidised eating out would damage the Exchequer. 

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