#9 – January 2020 “The con that nearly did for me” | SASIG
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They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve never signed up to this sentiment – I believe what doesn’t kill inevitably injures and scars you and takes a long time to recover from. Hopefully you’ll survive and continue to grow, but a bad frost never made a plant grow better.
I’ve screwed up many times in my long and eventful time on this earth, in a huge variety of ways. I’m proud that at least I’ve never made the same mistake twice, and that I’ve generally been able to bounce back. Nevertheless, there have been a series of unpleasant and painful happenstances that have bookmarked my rollercoaster life and career. None of them have ever made me stronger. Wiser, certainly, and perhaps more cautious. But never stronger.


My move to the Standard Chartered Bank in the mid-nineties gave rise to the worst of such cases. Although I had been “head hunted”, quickly it became apparent that I was neither technically competent nor politically astute enough to fill the role of what we’d now call the Global CISO. Redundancy soon followed, with a decent pay-off it must be said, and impulsively I seized this chance to fulfil my dreams of running my own business. Thus, The Security Company (International) Limited was born in the spring of 1997, funded by my redundancy pay and some savings from my RAF Pension. I had no order book and the clock was running.


“There have been a series of unpleasant and painful happenstances that have bookmarked my rollercoaster life and career.”


A perfect storm followed. I had absolutely no idea whatsoever about even the basics of how to run a small business, and I was totally unprepared for the special challenges of working as a sole trader after a lifetime spent cocooned within the protective layers of large institutions. I’d set out on a tight rope without being able to tight rope walk and without a pole, my only protection was that the night-time that was my ignorance and arrogance prevented me from seeing just how deep the ravine was beneath me. Had I glanced down even once, then I’d have been lost.


Working out of a small room at home without even email, tapping into my sparse list of contacts, confidently peddling my generalist security knowledge and unaware of just how precarious my financial situation really was, within a very short time I became an isolated, lonely and anxious creature. Add in a huge mortgage and the everyday demands of a large and growing family, the pressure on me to deliver was constant. The two eldest of my five children had by this time started at our local private school; their not-insignificant school fees had become yet another regular monthly financial responsibility, and one that couldn’t be disappointed.


It was at this low point in my life that I met Robert, a fellow father in the school community. This wasn’t his real name. I won’t identify him but only to save the feelings of his children, who did nothing wrong and don’t deserve to be called out even after all these years. His modus operandi was to work through his kids to the parents of their friends. He identified me as vulnerable. He systematically and conscientiously worked on becoming my best friend. Slowly and insidiously he wheedled his way into our family and into my affections in a process we would now call grooming. I was flattered that this seemingly experienced and successful entrepreneur was taking interest in my fledgling business. He spent several months becoming my friend, advising me, spending time with me, building his hugely detailed legend, constructing the fantastic illusion, drawing me into his own fictitious business network.


“It was at this low point in my life that I met Robert, a fellow father in the school community. This wasn’t his real name.” 


Then in a little under two weeks he stole all my savings in a massive con trick that I never saw coming. I lost everything, more than £60k in cash (double that amount in today’s money). As bad, my tenuous work pipeline had dried up whilst I’d been chasing the “fantastic” business opportunities he’d dangled in front of me, but which turned into Scotch Mist. He took my money and my fledgling business. I was left totally skint and completely bereft.


On reflection, he had also taken my pride and my confidence. But the most valuable thing he stole was my trust in others, which has never completely returned despite all the many intervening years. I still try to believe others, I was taught as a child to take everyone at face value until they prove themselves otherwise, to have faith in human nature. But since this experience there’s always been an edge to my trusting that I’m not proud of.


“Then in a little under two weeks he stole all my savings in a massive con trick that I never saw coming.”


So, for months he spun a tale, each element of which were in themselves plausible. For months I was slowly, inexorably drawn into his fantasy world. Whenever something jarred, he acted quickly to explain any discrepancy. Whenever I expressed concern or doubts, he doubled his efforts. There was never any paperwork, or at least none that I was permitted to retain, instead we skimmed over lengthy business plans and detailed spreadsheets that he took away with him afterwards. He would have long and detailed telephone conversations to (with hindsight) a dead phone. I was sworn to secrecy, he stressed this regularly, or the plans would be jeopardised. Occasionally he would pass to me small amounts of money to cover my expenses and to fund the planning process for our future business together. He knew of my love for old cars, so there was a proposed trip to Europe (it never came to pass) to visit his (mythical) friend who had an E-Type Jaguar in his barn ripe for renovation. He gave me an impressive watch as a present, it was a fake.


In the end, when he struck, I had no reason to disbelieve him. When he went in for what we now would call “the money shot”, he framed it as he and I together against his wicked (fictional!) business partner. He was my friend. Why shouldn’t I believe him? Why wouldn’t I spring to his aid when he was in trouble, when it was him asking for my help after all he’d done for me? There was urgency, too, we had to act fast or he’d lose everything in a hostile take-over; the prize for us both was the controlling share of a European airline, with hindsight this was all too ridiculous but at the time it seemed my fortune would be made forever. Remember the old saying – if it looks too good to be true then it probably is. The details are unimportant; indeed, they have become blurred over the passage of time, perhaps unconsciously I’ve blocked them out. Even if I could remember then probably, dear reader, I wouldn’t tell you anyway, it’s all too embarrassing – perhaps another day. All I do recall, too clearly, is that in the moment I suspended all rational reasoning and ran blindly and willingly into the trap he had spent so much time and care preparing for me.


“The prize for us both was the controlling share of a European airline.”


There was a moment, I don’t know what triggered it, when a realisation came upon me that he just wasn’t for real, that he owned nothing, that everything he claimed to be and everything he claimed to have done were pure fantasy. I suspect my subconscious had been screaming for ages and it couldn’t be suppressed for ever. Once my perspective had changed, once my suspicions were up, then just a couple of phone calls brought the whole edifice of lies crumbling down in the briefest of moments. Phone calls that I should have made months ago, basic checks that I’d failed to make from the start. But that was the beauty of the scam, there was no actual “start”, it all just happened by the smallest of steps. Once lured into the legend then any of my thoughts tended towards confirmation, I was looking only for those things that reinforced and ignoring those that didn’t. With hindsight my previous few months had consisted of countless red flags I’d deliberately avoided, advice from others I’d ignored, their concerns dismissed. But once the light came on then in an instance everything was revealed in its sullied ugliness and fakery. He was nothing. He had nothing. He was a pure confidence trickster. I had been betrayed by someone who had engineered our friendship solely for his own criminal purposes. I felt sick and stupid and violated, frightened and embarrassed and angry.


Then followed the repercussions. There’s another story for another day about my painful recovery from this awful experience. I had to explain my predicament to my wife and children, until then they knew nothing of my dealings and misadventures with the miscreant, they just thought he was the new family friend. I went to the police but they were unimpressed – to them, I had freely given my money to my best friend, they had old ladies being robbed in their homes to deal with, I featured low on their list of priorities and I can see that now. I did learn, and quickly, that I was in good company, that he was well known across the UK and had in the past entrapped such luminaries as judges and solicitors, and truly wealthy and successful and otherwise sensible businesspeople. He was a career conman, and one of the best. The amounts I’d lost had been chicken feed by comparison, and some of his previous victims had themselves gone to jail for fraud they’d committed innocently or otherwise as part of their encounters with him. Perhaps I’d escaped lightly? It didn’t feel like it at the time. When I’d run out of money he put pressure on me to borrow to further fund our plans, but my old dad had always taught me never to spend money I didn’t have so I resisted these entreaties and thus saved myself from total ruin.


” Just a couple of phone calls brought the whole edifice of lies crumbling down in the briefest of moments.”


Slowly and painfully the bruised and chastened phoenix eventually rose from the ashes of the disaster entirely of his own making. We managed not to lose the house and the kids stayed at school as old favours were humiliatingly called in to generate some much-needed immediate revenue. I would, and did, do anything. Fifteen-hour or more days became the norm – running training courses in Nigeria, strange projects in Ghana, an interim-CISO role in Luxembourg, a stint in Trinidad, tragically I even ended up on Christian-name terms with the barman at the Ibis Hotel, Toulouse Airport as I stayed there for months (another tale worth telling one day). A couple of acquaintances emerged to become life-long friends as they rallied around me and helped me to recover, offering real practical help and advice and much-needed moral support without judgement. One became the best man at my wedding to the other in 2012 – the rest is history.


I’ve had 20 years to reflect on this strange time in my life’s journey. Would it happen again? Hopefully, not. My anger mellowed; my perspective returned. As for the individual concerned, he’s since fled abroad. I understand he still knocks around Europe but in much-reduced circumstances. Shame; if he’d ever turned his hand to being honest, I’m sure he’d have made a fortune, he’s a very clever chap. But I don’t think it was necessarily about the money, I think he just enjoyed the game and the power it gave him over others. He was the cat to my mouse, playing with me.


It’s a well-worn maxim that failure is a stepping-stone to success. I’ve seen over the years that most successful people are those people who aren’t afraid to try new things and as a result they do often fail. Talk to any successful entrepreneur and they will unashamedly tell you of their many mistakes and failures. They will tell you that they happen to us all, but the key is not to let them get you down or discourage you. Instead you should learn and grow from them. Just try not to make the same mistake again!


“My anger mellowed; my perspective returned. As for the individual concerned, he’s since fled abroad.”


There are many famous quotes about failure and success. Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”; Confucius said “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall”; I love George S. Patton’s belief that “Success is measured by how high you bounce when you hit rock bottom”. But my own thought, oft repeated to myself over the years, is that you simply can’t learn to ski without falling over. I will refer you to the RAF motto “per ardua ad astra” – “through hard-work to the stars”.


There remains one enduring benefit from my travails all those years ago. My heart always goes out to anyone who becomes the victim of any scam, online or otherwise. I never judge, I never criticise, I know first-hand how easy it is to stumble into these things and how stupid you will feel afterwards. So, the saga I’ve just described became the bedrock for my subsequent career and the raison d’etre of my life’s work ever since – to educate the innocent about the dangers of fraud and to help them avoid my pitfalls. Hence The Security Company focusing on security awareness all these years. Hence The SASIG being founded in 2004. Somethings good can indeed come out of something bad.

Read more of Martin's Log

Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.

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