The Serious Fraud Office should put more energy into helping consumer fraud victims, its new head said on Thursday, signalling a potential shift of focus away from high-profile corporate graft.
Richard Alderman – a former top tax investigator little known to many in the world of fraud and corruption – brushed off the reputational damage suffered by the SFO over the abortive probe into BAE Systems’ arms deals with Saudi Arabia.
One of Mr Alderman’s first tasks will be to respond to last week’s High Court attack on the SFO and the government over the BAE case, which has crystallised much wider criticisms about the authorities’ performance on fraud and corruption.
Mr Alderman said in an interview that some of his main ambitions were to seize more proceeds of crime to reimburse victims, bring cases to court more quickly and educate people to protect themselves from fraud.
He said: “I want us to put the victims at the heart of what we do ... looking at bringing justice to the victims, compensating them – I think that’s very important.”
He said areas of focus would include advance fee frauds, “Ponzi” pyramid schemes and so-called boiler room frauds in which small investors are duped into buying near-worthless shares. He would examine how his plan – which covers areas already investigated by, among others, City of London police – would affect co-operation with other agencies and the “balance” between prosecutions and asset seizure proceedings.
The SFO has a wide-ranging mandate to investigate “serious and complex” fraud, but the most high-profile cases during its turbulent 20 years of existence have tended to involve scams at big companies or – increasingly – overseas corruption probes such as the BAE investigation.
Mr Alderman faces what one senior fraud lawyer describes as a “trial by fire” over how to respond to a High Court ruling last week that said Robert Wardle, the outgoing SFO director, had acted illegally in scrapping the BAE investigation on national security grounds.
Asked whether he thought the SFO’s credibility had been damaged by the BAE case, Mr Alderman said talks with staff had revealed “quite a lot of pride” in the organisation’s achievements.
He declined to comment on the High Court judgment, saying it was important to keep the BAE-Saudi probe “in perspective” as one of number of continuing investigations into the company in various countries.
He played down international criticism of Britain over the alleged hypocrisy of condemning corruption in poor countries while failing to ensure prosecutors had the resources to bring cases against British companies.
Mr Alderman said: “That [criticism] is not what I have been seeing. What I have been picking up is other authorities in other countries want to work with us.”