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December 6, 2010

The Richard Pryor school of “white-collar” crime

Superman III may not be The Man of Steel's greatest moment on film, but it's told us something about IT security. Gary Flood explains more


If nothing else, IT security breaches – aka fraud, nicking and violently abusing the trust of your employer – remind us that human nature seems to be the same in all eras of society, no matter what technology or complexity we add to it.


Thus the tale of an IT professional based in Muswell Hill, no less than a lead analyst programmer for Sainsbury’s, who has just been found guilty of cheating his bosses out of £70,000, or to be more legalistic "fraud by false representation" and straightforward theft.

The chap was busted on fraud offences related to scamming the retail giant out of loyalty Nectar points. The scam: using his position of trust to set up several different accounts to collect the things, and in turn buying over £8k of shopping he wasn’t entitled to out of them.

His operation had been running since 2002 and may have involved millions of points, as there is a differential with Nectar between pounds spent and points accrued, of course.

We can’t help but be reminded of the scam the Richard Pryor character operated in Superman III. If you recall, "Gus" Gorman, a street hustler, once an unsuspected knack for programming was discovered, cheats his first company out of vast amounts by quietly siphoning (salami slicing, as it’s called, one now learns: "a series of minor attacks that together results in a larger attack") tiny amounts of pennies off everyone else’s paycheques onto his own.

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Our North London-based version of Gus has been let go back home by the beak for Crimbo but will be doing solid jail time in the New Year, we learned from the local press report that alerted us to the saga.

I have to say that as a Sainsbury’s/Nectar user myself, I am a bit upset about all this. Without doubt, my own account was not harmed by any of this illegality, but it does make me wonder how secure the system is now. That’s surely only natural.

By the same token, there are always going to be people like Gus. They will work next to you, in Accounts, in HR – maybe you’re a Gus. Times are hard; you are not a bad person, but you are struggling more than you used to to make ends meet. You see an opportunity and you think, well, it’s "never going to be noticed" or "I deserve a bit more anyway" or "why should the big bosses get all of this while I get shafted," etc.

Welcome to the world of white-collar crime. Last year the City of London Police hired 50 new fraud specialists who have started with frauds valued at £1bn and are gathering intelligence on cases with potential losses of £500m. (That’s quite staggering in itself – they think it’s worth throwing manpower at scams that big that they hadn’t bothered with before. But we digress.)

And also welcome to the world of slopping out punishment. Mr Nectar Hacker will be tasting prison food and he won’t be alone. As City of London Commissioner, Mike Bowron, told the press, "The notion is that it’s a gentleman’s crime, that the chances of getting caught are slim and, if you are caught, you’ll get two weeks in Ford open prison. Those days are gone."

He also tells us why there are more Guses out there among the ranks of, yes, us ICT professionals too: ""It is very lucrative crime. There are some very bright individuals who have chosen, for whatever reason, to turn to crime. They are very intelligent, very driven individuals…. These are crooks who are not motivated by a heroin habit, or social deprivation and it gives me — as a cop — great satisfaction to catch them."

Still think no-one will notice – or care? Fair warning: Superman won’t be around this time to save your lying ass.

Superman image courtesy of Xurble on Flickr.

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