The suspected fraud perpetrated against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year included an ex-employee’s online shopping spree, more than £5,000 in phone charges – and the unsolved theft of expensive antique clocks from its London headquarters.
The FCO’s annual release of data on its counter-fraud actions shows that, during the year to March 2020, it endured gross losses of about £133,650 across 18 separate instances of fraud or misappropriation. About one fifth of this money was ultimately recovered.
Among the more costly instances was an incident in the department’s African operations in which a satellite phone was lost, resulting in “recurring charges” of £5,700. The phone was cancelled but it was not possible to recover any money, the FCO said, and no further remedial or punitive action was taken.
Another big item was an online shopping spree in which a former staff member – who had been recently dismissed as a result of “poor performance and time management” – spent £3,699 with Amazon.
The department “advised the bank of the fraudulent activity and the card was frozen… [then] Amazon was able to refund the purchase completely”.
Since the incident took place, managers at the FCO office in question – which is in the Asia-Pacific region – have “requested a list of ALL corporate credit card/government procurement card owners so they can monitor them more closely”.
The single biggest attempted fraud was an incident in January of this year in which an “ex-officer in the consular section was found to have been appropriating FCO consular funds during their employment”. The employee defrauded the department of £57,000, of which it was able to recover about £15,000.
After being caught and reported to local police in Bangkok in April, the officer in question “has agreed to repayment of funds in monthly installments no later than March 2021”.
Perhaps the most eye-catching item on the list is the loss of nine antique clocks from storage facilities at the FCO’s headquarters on King Charles Street in central London. The clocks were worth a cumulative £53,000 – not a penny of which has been recovered.
“Conclusion was made that the clocks were unlawfully removed from the building and loss was reported to the police,” the department said. “Police are unable to investigate further as there are a lack of leads. Items remain listed on the police stolen antiques list.”
Security processes were reviewed following the incident, the FCO said.
Food and furnishings
Other losses incurred last year include about £5,000 spent mostly on “taxis and takeaways” by a UK employee misusing their corporate credit card. The official was “dismissed after other unrelated issues were also taken into account”. The FCO was able to recoup all of this money.
But it failed to recover a loss of £2,800 incurred as a result of “fraud relating to bottled water deliveries”. The incident took place in Africa.
The only incident that took place in the Americas during the year was one in which an “officer's purse was stolen, containing the corporate credit card and its PIN”.
The thief was able to use the card to make four cash withdrawals worth a total of £983.33, resulting in a net loss to the Foreign Office of £412.
“The officer was given a formal written warning based on gross negligence and will be paying back a percentage of the amount over nine months,” the department said. “Staff at post [have been] reminded to comply with mandated procedures for the use of the corporate credit card, including the need to keep PIN numbers safe.”
The theft of the antique clocks may appear unusual, but it follows an incident in the previous year in which two chandeliers worth £4,000 each were stolen from storage facilities
The FCO has filed annual fraud data since 2017 – when it was recommended to do so by a Public Accounts Committee report that concluded that government should do more to combat fraud in its overseas operations.
The cumulative gross losses of 2019/20 were about £50,000 lower than the prior-year total of £182,135. A far higher proportion of money was recovered this year compared with 2018/19 – when only about one pound in 13 was recouped.
The theft of the antique clocks may appear unusual, but it follows an incident in the previous year in which two chandeliers worth £4,000 each were stolen from storage facilities. The money in that case was written off as it was “not possible to say who stole them”.
A further £1,000 was also lost – and recovered – in FY19 after an “officer forged documents to steal used furniture intended to go for auction”. The employee in question was dismissed and reported to police.
The Foreign Office has been approached for a comment.