'We are all at risk of cyber criminals now' – the garda at frontline of fraud battle
The Garda's leading fraud investigator has warned every citizen is under threat from cyber attack as it is the fastest-growing crime in the world.
In the first four months of this year alone invoice-redirect or email fraud accounted for the theft of more than €4.4m from Irish companies, with the money going into the coffers of international organised crime groups and possibly terrorist organisations like Isil.
But the officer in charge of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) concedes this is only the "tip of the iceberg" because a lot of fraud offences, particularly online scams, are not being reported to gardaí.
"The truth is this type of crime affects everybody we know and no one is immune from it: the young, the old, vulnerable individuals, large and small businesses, public and private sector organisations. There once was a belief that these cyber gangs only targeted big business but that is untrue," said Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent, the senior garda revealed the GNECB is tackling a constantly expanding criminal industry which is conservatively valued at €3.7tn per annum and is expected to increase to over €5tn in the next four to five years.
His officers regularly find themselves working through the night in a bid to track stolen money as it moves through the international banking system across multiple jurisdictions and several time zones in a matter of hours.
In keeping with global trends, the bureau's workload has increased dramatically over recent years and its two money laundering investigation units currently have a caseload of 35 individual economic crimes cumulatively worth "a conservative" €60m.
Amongst some of the high-profile public sector victims of cyber attacks in recent years were Dublin Zoo, the Louth/Meath Education and Training Board and Meath County Council. In each case the GNECB managed to recover all or part of the stolen taxpayers' money.
Of the €4.4m stolen from individuals and companies earlier this year, the bureau has tracked down and returned over a quarter of it to the victims.
"Fraud and economic crimes have been growing dramatically worldwide and we can definitely see this growth here, which is borne out by the increases in reported crime by individuals and companies," he said.
"A huge amount of fraud is not reported to the police so it is impossible to evaluate the full extent of economic crime that is going on.
"Some frauds go unreported for a variety of reasons including a sense of victim shaming or worry about potential reputational damage for a publicly trusted company, while individual victims who have been scammed out of €80 may just think it's not worth the hassle because only small money was involved."
Annual crime figures compiled by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for the year ended in March recorded a massive 28pc jump in reported fraud and economic crime offences.
An analysis of recent cases of invoice re-direct/CEO fraud (purporting to be from a chief executive officer) investigated by the GNECB serves to illustrate how no individual or organisation is immune.
Invoice re-direct fraud involves a fraudster sending an email to a business purporting to be from a legitimate supplier requesting they change the bank account details for payment.
The CEO or CFO (purporting to be from a chief financial officer) email frauds occur when criminals send their company's accounts department an urgent email instructing them to transfer money to a bank account provided.
Cyber attacks also involve online purchase fraud where victims paid for services or goods that did not exist, while other methods involve hacking into a victim's bank accounts and transferring money.
"Victims of these particular types of fraud include farmers, doctors, stockbrokers, solicitors, accountants, motor dealers, hospitals, hotels, development companies, sports clubs, pubs, pharmacies, schools so it really is a crime that affects every sector of society," the chief superintendent revealed.
"Our phones, laptops, tablets and home and office computers have made us all so accessible and decisions are made so easy and fast on the internet and that includes our money.
"The basic rule here is before you change any bank details for anyone double check and pick up the phone and speak to the customer or service provider directly."
But despite the obvious challenges posed by the growing crime trend the GNECB has smashed a number of fraud gangs operating here and abroad.
But Chief Supt Lordan warned: "The first 10 to 12 hours after an attack has taken place constitutes the golden hour period for us. Most people don't realise they have been scammed for a few days and then it is often too late."