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Tip of the iceberg: Q&A with Mark Cheeseman

Who are you and what is your background in fighting fraud?

I am Mark Cheeseman. Over the past six years I have been leading the work in the UK to transform the management of fraud across central government (the UK version of Federal government) and in the last few months I have been working as a special advisor to the Commonwealth Fraud Prevention Centre at the Attorney-General’s Department.

Before I led the cross government work in the UK, I was responsible for the Legal Aid Agency’s counter fraud activities, which involved working with them to protect them from fraud by members of the public, solicitors, barristers and all of those involved in, and around, the legal aid system.

What attracted you to a career in fighting fraud?

I would say three things. Firstly, I was coming from a project/policy/operations environment where there was an uncertainty on what the ‘right’ thing to do was.

It was really refreshing to work in an area where there was a clear right and wrong – there were people trying to rip off the taxpayer and we were trying to stop them.

Secondly, the people. My team in the Legal Aid Agency, and many of the teams I have worked with, are passionate and committed to what they are doing – but often side-lined by the wider business.

I saw a real opportunity for me to firstly enjoy working with them, but also to help them succeed and be recognised for the important role they play.

I was also hugely motivated that it was pretty much an ignored and ill-understood issue. Many people just didn’t want to know, it was an uncomfortable truth that was easier to ignore.

Many people told me that it was not important enough to focus on –  and that kind of thing always motivates me to prove them wrong!

What is the most interesting case you’ve been involved in?

I am going to give you a few, rather than one. I think they will show the diversity of fraud that we deal with in the public sector.

There was the case where a member of the public who applied for legal aid claiming to be living in a garden shed of a house, when he was actually married to the lady who owned the house and was very much living indoors.

There was also a case where court administrators were taking bribes to not enter people’s court fines onto the system.

We also had a solicitor that made up cases of legal aid, and then claimed for them. We had a barrister whose defence for over £100,000 of unpaid tax was that he earned so much that he did not know.

These are a few examples – there are many more!

What is one key lesson you have learned during your fraud fighting career?

Passion and commitment will get you a long way.

Working in an area like fraud there can be a lot of stakeholders who do not want to engage with you (especially if you are investigating them!) or who actively want to block what you are doing.

If you remain objective, evidence based and, most importantly, back this up with passion and a never give up attitude you can make a difference. And making a difference in this area is big.

In the UK, I know that people will have received hospital treatments because of the work we have done to reduce fraud in the National Health Service.

That is people being ill for less time and their families not having to live with the uncertainty and turmoil of an ill loved one.

That is worth getting up early every day and putting in the hard yards.

What major challenges do you see entities facing in countering fraud?

Well, two overall. The first is accepting that fraud is an issue that needs some focus and resources.

As fraud is a hidden crime, the easiest thing to do is to put it to the side – especially if no fraud is being found. However, the sad truth is that fraud is a huge issue.

In the UK we know that it is the crime that individuals are most likely to fall victim to, that businesses are suffering more and more from it and that in the public sector, when we look for it we find it.

Entities have to accept that fraudsters will target them, and they can better use public sector money by finding it and stopping it.

This means understanding and engaging with the issue, not dealing with it at a superficial level.

The second is, once fraud is accepted, to deal with it as a business problem.

There is a whole load of things under this, but at it's most basic it means measuring fraud and (just as importantly) measuring the impact of counter fraud resources.

It is too easy when we put resources into fighting fraud seeing it as the right thing to do, or to see the fact that we have dedicated resource to it as an outcome as itself.

Actually, if you want to deal with fraud properly, and sustainably, thought needs to be put into measuring the outputs in a way that is meaningful to the entity, so as a business, they understand and appreciate its value.

What advice would you give someone considering a career in countering fraud?

Find your passion for it, and work out how to make an impact.

This is a quickly evolving area and in 10 years I am sure that many of our practices for dealing with fraud will have changed.

It is easy when one is starting in a career to stick to the practices and legislation that we have in place.

Now, I am not advocating breaking the law, but don’t be constrained by the status quo.

In the UK the career paths we have in place now for those working in counter fraud are there because a group of passionate people working in countering fraud did not accept the status quo.

If you want a career in counter fraud, don’t just do the job, shape the job and the discipline for those who will follow you.

In making an impact, countering fraud plans, policies and other documents are our tools – the impact is what we do with these, not their existence.

If you want to flourish and stand out in this area, you will need to work out how to use those tools to make a measurable impact on your organisation.

Be passionate and make an impact – this is an area that is ripe for it.

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