Podcast transcript - Investigations: forensic accounting

Episode 1 - Investigations: our new forensic accounting

Read below for a transcript of the first episode of our new podcast series - Investigations

Steve Holt:

Hi, I’m Steve Holt and you’re listening to the first episode of, well 'podcast without a name', at the minute, so if you’ve got any suggestions they’d be very gratefully received.

Anyway, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some of the largest and most-prominent investigations in recent times. I’ve found it really hard to talk about what I do without referring to some of the most unusual places and situations that I find myself in, and the more that you speak to people in the industry, the more you realise that there are hundreds of interesting journeys and stories to be told, and that our world isn’t made up of solely or the stereotypical stuffy accountant or lawyer that you often see portrayed. But instead we have a diverse range of individuals with a unique perspective and rich experiences. Now the purpose of this podcast is to try and celebrate these individuals, this diversity and these stories, and I’m going to try and speak to as many people with an interesting story to tell.

Now, please, bear in mind this is the first podcast I’ve ever done, its entirely DIY, not really got any idea what I’m doing, but I’m just trying to piece something together. So please forgive any major problems and give me any constructive feedback. Anyway, thank you for listening and I hope you enjoy!

So, my first guest is Bob Duffield, who’s the executive chairman of GreyList Trace Limited. Bob has had a fascinating career ranging from anthropology to working in television, down to forensic investigations and asset tracing and he’s a really fascinating bloke and I really enjoyed our conversation so here’s hoping you do to.

Bob Duffield:

What’s interesting about being an investigator, of course, is that you don’t think when you’re a child ‘I’m going to be an investigator’. I suppose you might be a fireman or a policeman or you might be something that your father was or something like that, so looking back now it seems quite odd that I’m an investigator and I’ve been an investigator for such a long time. And I’m trying to join up the threads of how this has happened to me, and I think the thing that has really underpinned who I am, maybe that does go right back to childhood, as it’s all to do with curiosity; wanting to find out about the world, then wanting to find out about one's self and one's place in the world. These are sort of big drivers, I think, and in my case, I come from a relatively modest background, grammar school boy, had all of the ambitions of a grammar school boy, working-class grammar school boy, to become a doctor. So that would have pleased mum and dad and I would have been a doctor. I did the A-levels to be a doctor, chemistry, physics, maths and biology, but then I had this precocious thought that I didn’t really want to do that and so I didn’t go to medical school.

I ended up reading politics at university and that was a really great elevation, in a sense, because obviously I was steeped in science. When you do science A-levels, you learn a lot about science, but this journey into politics was great and I did well at it. And, then, in those days, because we were paid to go to university, not only did we have no tuition fees, they actually paid us to rent a house and eat, so I ended up doing another degree in, well two subsequent degrees at Oxford in social anthropology, and the reason this comes back to this weird curiosity, because I think what I suddenly realised was that, certainly from an education point of view, I was interested in things that aren’t a means to an end, they just didn’t end in themselves.

My thesis was on a tribe in Africa and, when you start to read about anthropology, you’re reading about other people. You learn more about yourself than you kind of learn about them. So this whole spiral of curiosity, I suppose it was going to lead me into what I thought would be an academic career. What are you going to do when you’ve got your thesis in social anthropology? Well you’re going to teach social-anthropology, but I wasn’t good enough to do that to be fair and so I thought ‘well I’m emerging out of university aged 28 with the three degrees - one for me, one for mum and one for dad - and what am I going to do?’ and a guy at college said ‘well why don’t you try journalism? I think you’d be good at it.’

Anyway, cut a long story short, I did apply to a firm called Surrey and South London Newspaper Group, and I became a cub reporter. I trained as a journalist in Wimbledon and that was kind of interesting too because, by then, I’m 28-29, most of the people I’m working with are younger than me, so I’m there making the tea, feeling my way, but this was a pretty good job for an anthropologist, because you’ve got to get to know the community to know the stories, you’ve got to work out what a story is. So again, suddenly I realised that academia would have been useless for me. Being a journalist was absolutely perfect to learn about the world and to follow this curiosity.

Steve:

That seems to be a thread that runs throughout though, because I guess even a medical side of stuff is curiosity into how does this work, how do you fix it, but you moved into journalism. What did you find hard about journalism? So, you see, its such an interesting job and I’ve met so many journalists in the past and worked with quite a few, and there is a certain world weariness I guess about everyone I seem to have met, is that something you’d share or?

Bob:

No, I think it was a métier for me, it was perfect. It was a perfect job coming down from Oxford into a community, of course the money was useless, but I trained, they vaguely taught me, I can still do short hand, and we had to pass exams. I mean, maybe people would think they’re a bit like Mickey Mouse exams, but you had to pass, but because of my age I realised I got a lot out of being a local journalist. I knew I couldn’t stay there because I was too old, I had to feel I was progressing and of course the way to progress from local newspapers is to work for Fleet Street or a national newspaper. But then another opportunity, or indeed radio, but another opportunity suddenly presented itself.

There was a creative and media adverts and there was this job advertised for Thames Television looking for a sub-editor to pioneer a new service on Teletext. Now I don’t know how many people listening to this would even know what Teletext is anymore, but it was a relatively crude way of getting information onto a television screen. It was like people could read a story, so anyway, I went for this job not really expecting to get it at all, because it was the sort of job, it was like a leap from local papers into a TV station. I mean there was a lot of people applying for that job, but anyway I got it, me and another guy got it. We set up this Teletext news services for Thames, and essentially it basically meant that we went to work every day and we were getting newsfeeds from the news desk, the Thames news desk, and then we were putting them on screen. We also has PA, we had all sorts of wires coming through and it was quite an interesting discipline for a journalist, because every story was 90 words, because that was 90 words was the absolute limit of a TV screen, so that meant that you had to learn to write in a quite tight way.

Steve:

That’s almost the Twitter of back in the day I suppose! I used to love Teletext; I can genuinely tell you I lost afternoons trying to do Bamboozle. I think it was Channel 4 Teletext and you had to guess the answers by pressing the relevant coloured buttons. I was rubbish at it, but I was so determined I was going to get to the end of this flipping quiz. I never got there.

Bob:

But in the context of the evolution of the internet, it does seem incredibly crude though doesn’t it? Even now, I look back and I think, but hey it was back to my sense of being a journalist. I thought ‘well I’ve got to get out of this, I can’t be doing Teletext on screen. I’m in a television company, I don’t want to work in television’ and I suppose this is really the beginning of, this has been a long intro to how to I became an investigator. how does this lead to investigation?

Well, I cut a long story short, I applied, I knew I had to get out of Thames, Thames was a... you were relatively well paid relative to other journalists in the BBC, certainly, but I wrote to every producer in the Radio Times of every programme that I thought would interest me. And, amazingly, I got an interview for an associate producer role. It was called News and Current Affairs. I went for it and I got a job on a programme called That’s Life, and That’s Life people would probably remember is run by Esther Rantzen and - of course this completely dates me - but it was Esther Rantzen who, in a sense, turned me into an investigator. Amazingly, on a Sunday night when this programme went out, we would get between 16 and 17 million viewers. I mean this is sort of, almost unheard of now. I don’t know whether even the World Cup only gets about 11 or something, anyway, I don’t know the figures, but I’m telling you that’s a lot of people.

Steve:

It really is.

Bob:

And she gave me the chance to investigate. They were consumer investigations. I don’t know whether... You probably don’t know the programme...

Steve:

I do, sadly. I remember watching an episode.

Bob:

Well, essentially, what it is, is that you know people would write to us? You can imagine the amount of letters we got. I mean just bins full of letters from people and, from within these letters, there were germs of a story. Basically people saying ‘I’ve been ripped off’.

It was a programme about rip-offs and the exploited. The old, the poor and, of course, Esther wanted to build around the programme some reforming zeals. She wanted to change the law. I mean she was responsible for bringing in Childline and all sorts of other campaigning bits of journalism, but essentially I became one of her investigative journalists. You know going around, finding the story, standing it up and then it would go out on a Sunday, which was remarkable, given all the people that were watching.

I found myself in a really quite a powerful position. I mean most journalists don’t get that kind of crack. Okay, and I was going to stay at That’s Life forever, and then a job came up for a programme called Rough Justice. Now, Rough Justice was a programme which examined cases of people who were in prison, like mainly murderers, people who’d been convicted for murder in our case, and they would say, well ‘I’m in prison. I’ve been in prison for 8 years but I didn’t do it’, and of course the normal thought is 'well, yeah, they all say that don’t they, but basically I became an investigative journalist, a true investigative journalist, doing this series of programmes, and I was kind of one of the lead researchers taking on cases, finding people. Obviously, you have to approach it with skepticism - you know. am I being lead down the garden path? - but, eventually, we would.

It was a job where you had two axes really: one was a very internal one, where you’re reading the case and, obviously, we got the paperwork from the prisoner, from their lawyers, so its kind of rather an academic study of all of the papers. You were talking about information overload, processing the papers, in probably a way that no lawyer ever had, because if someone’s in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, nearly always the lawyer is responsible, because they didn’t do their job.

Steve:

Evidence isn’t there or there’s something circumstantial

Bob:

Well, its because a lot of people who found themselves in prison for a murder they didn’t commit was that they were on legal aid, often a criminal practice that had never really done much of this type of investigation. Anyway, I was quite good at this, and the other part of the job was having studied the case and worked out that there really was a grounds for the hypothesis of innocence. You have to then go and test it. You have to go and find new evidence.

Now, how are you going to do that? You’re not going to do it sitting on your bottom reading legal papers. So, then I had to go round, you know, where the murder took place. I have to track witnesses. I mean, in every case, we were probably, we were re-examining all the evidence, five, six, seven, often eight years after the actual trial. These people had thrown away the key and they were pretty completely desperate.

Steve:

Did your work ever lead to any convictions being overturned?

Bob:

Yeah, we got, it's not just me, obviously, it was a team of people both for Rough Justice, and I did the same job really for Channel 4 in another programme called Trial and Error. Pretty much the same people were working for both companies at different times, but I would say we got about a dozen people out of prison, I would say.

Steve:

Wow, that’s amazing.

Bob:

On the basis of new evidence, and its just one of those great moments that you never forget when you’re at the high courts of justice onto the strand or you know, you know that that’s the only door that a convicted prisoner can walk out of, a free man and it was nearly almost men. So, that’s really back to you know, curiosity. It was like trying to find things out, it was like almost a forensic interest in detail, that’s kind of what propels me, I think, as an investigator.

Steve:

So, how did you move then from the media world into the corporate intelligence world?

Bob:

Well, what happened, the BBC kind of changed, when That’s Life got 16 million viewers, television stopped at midnight, there was no television on, I think they still played the national anthem? I don’t know. It might have been part of... I do remember that, but I don’t know when they stopped that. But, essentially, suddenly television had new channels, obviously, we were 4, and then there was Sky, and you know all of these new digital channels started to show up, and so the money that was spent doing programmes like Rough Justice, which were quite expensive, had to go and pay for people to sit on sofas on morning television and afternoon television. And so, the truth is, we just couldn’t do the programme anymore, I mean they kind of shelved it.

Steve:

You can see why it would be so expensive because the process you follow is the process any investigator follows and it's not the cheapest thing to do.

Bob:

No, that’s true, but the expense is relative to the cost. I think in about 1996, when I left the Channel 4 programme, I think our programme was budgeted at about £250,000 per broadcast hour, whereas a normal documentary, like a Dispatches, was budgeted at about £90,000. So our programme was more than twice that cost, why? Because we had to investigate many more people to get a programme together.

You know sometimes, we would be investigating a case and it would fall down. We’d either find new evidence that they were guilty, or we would realise that we kept putting more and more resource to try and find that critical piece of evidence, and we failed, so we didn’t have enough for the programme. The key to these programmes was that we had to... we weren’t special pleading, you know we weren’t saying ‘oh, well, he didn’t like the sight of blood’, you know, ‘he couldn’t have done it’ - all that kind of stuff. It had to be really unimpeachable new evidence to make the programme, so in other words, the programme standards were so high that, in fact, as journalism goes, I don’t think they would get any higher, and so that did hoover up quite a lot of resource.

So, what happened to me, well, I suddenly thought 'what am I going to do?' I’m now, by then, I’m in my mid 40s. I’m a good investigative journalist and I’m quite good at getting people out of prison, but I’ve got no-one to work for. So what did I do? I, through a contact, amazingly, I managed to do a bit of work for Kroll, did some freelance assignments for Kroll. I got to know some people there, got trusted by them, did some quite-interesting cases for them. And then I was recruited by a Kroll breakaway company; a small boutique outfit, and I then left television for good. They just said, ‘do you want to work for us?’ and I said, ‘yes’, so I worked for them for about two years.

That takes us up to about ’98, and then in ’99, I threw Nigel Nicholson, who’s our current FD (financial director). He, basically, he and I, he’d managed to raise some money to set up a boutique investigations company of my own called Y Limited, just the letter ‘Y’. I always wanted to name a company after a letter of the alphabet. It was quite funny. I went through going from A - gone, B - gone, C... I was thinking, this is, I’m never going to get a letter, and then I got to ‘M’, and I thought, 'M Limited'. It was available. M Limited: that’s got James Bond-type connotations. And then, I thought, ‘nah, it’s just a bit corny. I can’t do it’, so I carried on, N... I went all the way through, came to Y, and the company had been dissolved two weeks prior to me opening the page saying "dissolved", and I thought, ‘I’ll have it’.

Steve:

I guess it has a great connotation as well, being ‘why’, as well as a letter.

Bob:

Well, actually, in a sense, this is quite a good motif for this discussion, because you know I want to find out 'why'. I want to find out why the police fitted someone up to get them into prison for a crime they didn’t commit; I wanted to find out why a witness statement was suddenly not available. You know, often, you get people out of prison when you realise, or you find out, that the police have not disclosed key evidence to the defense. But, you can imagine, it’s quite hard to do that, because the police are covering. If they are going to do that, they’re going to cover their tracks.

Steve:

And often proving the absence of something is very difficult.

Bob:

Yes.

Steve:

Because you almost have to prove the opposite universe.

Bob:

Exactly, so anyway, once Y Limited is formed in ’99, I mean, we’re off to the races. I mean, yeah, we were small, we never advertised. It’s a business that can only work on a word-of-mouth basis.

I was lucky enough to attract some pretty-good blue-chip clients, which kept us going. We didn’t get very rich on it, but again, the work was really interesting. What we were doing, all the standard stuff now that we talk about, and you and I will talk about, you know, due diligence, checking people out, and all sorts of information like asset tracing. Let's cut to the chase, yeah, asset tracing. But very hard to find assets and not break the law, and I think this came up in the conference we’ve just been at. I mean it's, you know, we certainly never broke the law, but its very hard. How do you find out what people have if they’ve stolen money and you don’t know whether they’re hiding it.

So, out of this frustration, I said to my partner, John, I’d not introduced you to him yet, but he basically, in my story, in this narrative, when I set Y Limited up in ’99, I met this guy, John. He’s an extraordinary character, again, comes from a council house background in Sheffield, quite a tough upbringing, but a mathematical genius, I mean, clearly. And, by the time I met him, he was very skilled in cyberspace, let's say no more than that, he was a cyber expert. He could speak all of these computer, I say "speak" metaphorically, you know, he could speak all of these computer languages. He was just utterly, he was a rare find.

I suppose that meant that, at Y Limited, we could do some very interesting stuff. We see ourselves now as pioneering, what you might call, digital investigation, which is finding information in places that no one else could find it. And again, you know very, very interesting work, but I did say to John, I said, look ‘this asset-tracing lark, you know, if we could just find a way of legally, that didn’t break the law, of finding out where people have bank accounts, then I think we could make quite a lot of money.’ And he obviously thought about it, and then something like, you wouldn’t believe this, something like a year or two later, he then says, he’s from Yorkshire, ‘you know Bobby, I think I’ve found out how we can do it’.

Steve:

That’s not a bad accent.

Bob:

He wrote the GreyList algorithm. You know, you and I have met through this new company that we have, but you know John wrote the algorithm as part of Y Limited and we did use it. We trialed it in some cases that we were using, when we were doing Y, but, essentially, what happened was, once we perfected and we proved that this algorithm could do what we say it could do, this was just a year ago, we raised £1.35 million, we put all of the IP into this new company, and we’ve been going for about a year and that’s what I’m doing now. I’m going around the world, literally the world, telling people about how GreyList Trace can really improve how they can find bank accounts.

Steve:

Its certainly very interesting, I mean you’re right, asset tracing is just by its nature really hard because you find most of the time you’re finding something or trying to find something that’s hidden by design so its not like you can knock on a few doors.

Bob:

Well you think about it, where else are you going to get the information, I guess if you’re a liquidator you might find reference to certain banks in statements, you know you’ve got a bundle of information but by the time you get to the bank accounts to find that they’ve been emptied and then you aren’t sure where the money has gone, can you track it down, of course if you ask the other sociological approach is if you say well we know this guy has got quite a lot of money, we just don’t know where. Then you say well where do the kids go to school, you know, where do they go on holiday, do they have a villa, its all that fleshing out of a lifestyle maybe that might give you a clue that maybe he’s got an account you know near his holiday home or something like that. But yeah, we’ve really taken the heavy lifting out of that, because as you know you give us an email address and we can legally find out which banks that email address has been whitelisted i.e. its been used to open a bank account. What we can’t tell you is whether the bank account is active or defunct, I can’t tell you that. Why? Because I’m not in the banking system. What makes Greylist legal is that we aren’t in the banking system, its basically a mixture of AI and it’s a probability thing. The algorithm essentially is testing whether an email has opened up an account. When we provide a result to a client we aren’t saying there’s definitely a bank account there we’re saying there’s a very high probability that if you want to try and find where accounts are, try these banks first.

Steve:

I think it goes back to the whole thing I think about investigations, that sometimes people mix up intelligence and information.

Bob:

Yes, absolutely.

Steve:

They think they’re the same thing and this is providing intelligence that there may be something here, its not saying it is here, its not 100% fool proof in that its definitely an account, its definitely got X million.

Bob:

Well I quite like that because you see if I knew everything then I would be breaking the law, you see if I say to you ‘oh yeah there’s definitely an account there and its got 5 and 6 pence in it’ you’re going to say ‘well I cant use it’ because...

Steve:

You can’t get that information.

Bob:

No, so you’re absolutely right this is, Greylist is asset tracing intelligence essentially but its just really rather good

Steve:

Fantastic, so changing slightly and kind of going back to your career in a way. What would you say the best piece of advice you’ve ever received has been?

Bob:

Well that’s interesting, I think it probably goes back down, it goes back to working with Esther. I mean this was like the beginning of my career as an investigative journalist, was that I think what I learned from her, I think I’ve touched on it already is that everyone has a story really. In other works I’m not, I don’t think, I’m forensically minded but I don’t think I’m nerdy minded. I’m not someone that is, as you imply, you know you said about information sort of completely drowning in data. Data is data, machines are better at handling data than human beings and that’s part of what AI is about I suppose. I think at the heart of my curiosity about the world really essentially makes me curious about other people so, and out of that comes a kind of interest in what the truth is. I mean, if someone is coming to you with a problem, they’re saying ‘I think someone might be defrauding me’ or ‘there’s a business within a business, I’m not sure I need some evidence’ I’d say ‘well I’m pretty sure we could find a way of finding that out’. In other words when you take a brief as an investigator, lets assume its like being in a dark room. The client says ‘look this is completely it’s a tunnel its completely dark I don’t know, there’s things I don’t know’. And I look down the tunnel and say ‘I don’t know any more than you do at the moment, but we do have ways of lighting the path’.

Steve:

Yeah

Bob:

Down that tunnel. So I think that’s it, and I think you know you’ve just got to be pretty open minded as well. I think to be a good investigator you’ve got to be prepared to be wrong, and you’ve also got to accept that sometimes you hit what you call a cul-de-sac so well I’ve put all these resources into a certain strand only to find that there’s nothing there. But that too is good intelligence, you see.

Steve:

Well you know where something isn’t I suppose.

Bob:

Yes you’ve nailed it, you know where something isn’t so that is positive

Steve:

Absolutely, so one of the things I love about being an investigator is because you do I think you have to have that open minded attitude, you have to look at the world in maybe a slightly different way. Sometimes in quite a skeptical way but generally in a, you try and look for different avenues, you try to understand why people are doing things. You get into some very odd situations.

Bob:

Absolutely.

Steve:

What’s the weirdest situation you’ve found yourself in, that you can talk about.

Bob:

Oh yeah sure I mean its quite straight forward, I’ve often mentioned it, I mean there are several but this is the one that I find quite amusing because this was, I was investigating quite a famous case for Rough Justice it was called the Ice Cream Wars in Glasgow and it was very heavy parts of Glasgow, you can imagine me, what I sound like.

Steve:

Straight away.

Bob:

But of course the great thing about being an investigator for rough justice was that I was mixing in the criminal community. I mean, you can imagine they love Rough Justice because they see it as giving the police a good kicking you see. I’m marking police homework, so you know instantly you know the people that I’m going to be mixing with who are part of the communities where these crimes are taking place, I’m in there. In fact, often the person in prison that I’ve got out was a criminal but just not for murder. The police, the reason they got fitted up or the reason they got caught by the police was they were already on the police radar for probably something like shoplifting or burglary or something like that. So there I am, up in Glasgow, and I’ve found this witness, a very key witness, and you know my Scottish accent is not good enough so I can’t bear to even try that anyway, I meet up with him and of course I’m smoking in those days so the great thing about the anthropology of smoking giving people cigarettes, receiving them, so he started walking and he says ‘aye I’m going to take you to a place’ and we’re walking down the road and then there’s literally like a almost like a hole in the wall, I didn’t know quite where I was, a rough end of Glasgow. We do down an alleyway and then into another door and its an illegal drinking place, I think they... anyway, don’t know what they call it in Scotland, anyway we go in and it’s a bit like in Star Wars that sort of that bar.

Steve:

Oh the Canteena with a band in the background.

Bob:

Yeah and well its just like where all these, these were like night creatures. I walk in and there’s this very low lighting and stools and they’re all turning to look at me and this guy says ‘don’t worry this guy works for Rough Justice alright’ and so we then they all look and then we go and sit down and get a few drinks I sit down and we start talking and of course I’ve got to drink and take notes what he’s telling me and then I look back at the bar and there’s about 7 pints that have been poured for me. Now what do I have to do? I have to drink them. But I was actually incredibly heartwarming that sense of you know being an alien in a completely alien world and it was just you know brilliant.

Steve:

Fantastic.

Bob:

And that is what intelligence is, its like source intelligence. What they might be telling you complete bullshit, but it doesn’t matter because as long as you can log what they’ve said because it may well be there’s something in there or they lead you to someone else. I mean its always often the person you want to get to is a whole knights move away from the person you’re talking to, to find the right source. I mean that’s very often the case in miscarriage of justice because I would get into someone’s front door and start talking to them and thinking that they were the key person and then it would turn out that they knew someone who was also involved with the case but for whom there was no statement at all. So I wouldn’t have known who they were.

Steve:

Yeah

Bob:

Then it turns out that that person did give interviews to the police, but the police must have got rid of the statements. You with me? Suddenly I wouldn’t have got to that person if I hadn’t managed to get through the front door of the first person. You know so you’ve got to engage with people I think.

Steve:

Absolutely I think you’ve raised a really good point there that you spend a lot of, in an investigation you never really see at the outset how much time you’re going to waste. Because you’re going to waste time, you’re going to go down rabbit holes, you’re going to look at stuff that’s not relevant, you’re going to speak to people who lie to you repeatedly.

Bob:

Yeah.

Steve:

But you don’t know it could be the hundredth person you speak to who gives you that one piece of information that unlocks everything. It could be the first, you never know, you don’t know until you start.

Bob:

Well it’s a bit like hitch-hiking in my hippy days its how I used to get around was, and I use it as a metaphor for how you make your luck. People say ‘what you’ve got to do in life is make your luck’ and you think oh what does that mean you’re either lucky or you aren’t. And I ripped out that hitch-hiking is a very good way of describing what ‘making your luck’ means, you’ve got to stand by the road with your thumb out and its as you say its either the first car or it’s the thousandth and you don’t know which one to get in

Steve:

You just pray it’s the early one. That’s really helpful thank you so much for spending time with us its been really great to speak to you

Bob:

Well, I hope that was alright and not too performing, I mean, I just, I just say I like talking.

Steve:

Wonderful, it's really interesting.

Well there you go, I really enjoyed meeting Bob, he was good fun, our conversation went really quickly and I found him a really fascinating person to speak to. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the podcast. Please get in touch with any comments, suggestions, if you just want to give me some abuse, that’s fine, I don’t really mind too much, and certainly any suggestions for other people to speak to. I’m always looking forward looking to speak to some really interesting people. Anyway, thanks a lot, cheers, take care, bye bye.