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How the coronavirus pandemic will affect the Serious Fraud Office

  • United Kingdom
  • Financial services disputes and investigations
  • Litigation and dispute management

09-04-2020

It is becoming abundantly clear that the world as we know it will never be the same after the global coronavirus pandemic given the impact it has already had upon our daily lives, families, communities and the global economy. People have been forced to adapt and adjust their personal priorities and future plans, and so too have businesses, governments, and law enforcement.

The mission and purpose of the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”) is “to deliver fair and effective justice which calls for the multi-disciplinary approach and legislative powers available to the SFO”. The SFO does this by reacting and adapting to emerging trends, new typologies, and developments in criminal law and procedure which afford the SFO ‘new tools’.

Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the SFO re-directed its focus towards misconduct in financial institutions, including the LIBOR and Euribor fixing cases, and the long running and ultimately unsuccessful investigation into Barclays’ capital raising arrangements with Qatar Holding LLC.

Since the introduction of both the Bribery Act 2010 in 2011 and Deferred Prosecution Agreements in early 2014, the SFO’s focus has steadily moved away from financial institutions and towards investigations of bribery and corruption within international corporations.

We predict that the SFO will recalibrate its immediate and long term priorities and focus to adapt to the economic crimes which will emerge during and in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic in the following ways:

NHS Frauds

The SFO’s highest priority will be tackling pandemic-related frauds committed against the NHS, public health departments or healthcare providers. There will be a great public interest in prosecuting this type of insidious exploitation of the public health crisis, and the SFO will be eager to take swift and effective action. One of the SFO’s earliest blockbusters, Operation Holbein, was an investigation into price-fixing of pharmaceuticals sold to the NHS, so this type of investigation is familiar to the SFO.

Charitable Frauds

One of the positive outcomes of the crisis has been the way in which our communities have pulled together, exemplified by the numerous charitable funding platforms which have been set up to help vulnerable people and key workers. However as we sadly saw following the Grenfell Tower fire, charitable funding can be used as a mechanism for fraud. Again the public interest in prosecuting this abhorrent type of fraud will ensure that these cases will be a key priority for the SFO.

Pension Liberation and Investment Frauds

The pandemic has caused a global economic downturn, market instability and financial insecurity, creating a hotbed of opportunities for fraudsters to exploit fearful investors by using pension liberation and investment scams, such as the carbon credit and Brazilian rainforest scams which were popular in the mid-2010s. Pandemic related scams are likely to emerge, including opportunities to invest in fake vaccine development start-ups, or non-existent PPE suppliers.

Concealed fraud and corruption

Historic or ongoing frauds and corruption often emerge as a result of economic downturns as businesses become leaner and start to call in investments and debts. Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is likely to have lasted longer had the Global financial crisis not occurred in 2008.

When businesses start to fail, some enter into administration and others are acquired by other companies or investors. Fraud and corruption are often uncovered by the administrators or during the pre-acquisition due diligence.

We expect that the SFO’s case load over the next three years will include investigations of crimes uncovered as a result of the current economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Corruption

Corruption often occurs during public health crisis and humanitarian aid efforts. One of the SFO’s largest investigations in the late 2000s was into the Iraqi oil-for-food humanitarian programme that ran from 1996 to 2003, and in September 2019 the former Health Minister for the Democratic Republic of Congo was charged with embezzlement of £3.4 million of public funds allotted to tackle the 2018 Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 2,000 people.

We predict that pandemic-related corruption with a UK nexus will also feature in the SFO’s case load in the next three years.

We recommend that when carrying out regular anti-corruption and financial crime risk assessments in the future, companies consider how their business could be exposed to pandemic-related fraud or corruption. Companies should also always ensure that adequate pre-deal due diligence is conducted prior entering to investments, acquisitions, mergers or joint ventures, designed to identify inherent corruption or financial crime within the target company.

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