From 9/11 to COVID-19, the Fight Against Financial Crime

As Covid-19 changes the way we live, I have noticed encouraging signs in everyday things. While the pandemic tightened its grip on NYC, goodwill also arose to unite the city. Seeing NYC residents showing support each evening for our incredibly brave frontliners by banging pots and pans or singing “New York, New York” made the hair on my neck stand up. People were truly seeing neighbors they have lived next to for years, but never really got to know. It soothed my soul to see something familiar in the unprecedented, having seen this once before, during a similarly dark time.

On a smaller scale than the current pandemic, the tragic events of 9/11 shocked the world, plunging us all into feelings of fear, despair and thinking “is this the new normal?” Having responded to “Ground Zero” as an NYC-based FBI Special Agent just after the planes hit the towers, I vividly recall the shock, the panic, the mayhem and the dismay. Cell phone reception was abysmal. Rumors were flying that there were more planes in the air, that the attacks were not over. I remember struggling to grasp that what was unfolding was real. How could this be happening? Life would never be the same…

Lower Manhattan was shut down and only first responders were allowed below Canal Street. New York City, the financial center of the world, was shut down. However, out of the ashes of the pulverized sheet rock from the towers rose something incredible. The people of New York and the world came together. City residents began showing up near the checkpoint on West Street, at first just a few brave souls. As my partner and I drove up to the checkpoint in a Bureau car, we noticed the crowd, unsure of what was happening. It quickly became clear. They had handwritten signs showing appreciation and were cheering for each first responder that arrived. You have no idea how that made me and other first responders feel. It gave me goosebumps.

Seeing how New Yorkers, a group of people from all walks of life with a seemingly hardened exterior, came together in such a tender way gave us strength to handle our difficult tasks. It was calming to know that the people we worked to protect had come together and had our backs. We were all united in our efforts and we would get through this together. The good did, and would, outweigh the bad.

I hope everyone is as inspired as I was to see NYPD officers outside of hospitals giving a standing ovation to the frontline caregivers bearing the physical and emotional toll of this pandemic. I hope they feel the same calm, strength and motivation in their cores as I felt in 2001.

Unfortunately, like our response to 9/11, the hard work will continue. And like 9/11, there will be those who seek to profit from the crisis.

Crisis amplifies human behavior, often for the good, but sometimes for ill. Across the globe, we are already seeing efforts by some to take advantage of much-needed aid programs. An April 10 news report stated that the FTC had already received reports of $12 million lost to COVID-19 fraudsters. Where there are large pots of money, fraudsters will try to take advantage. The good news is that based on experience with past crises and new technology, we are well prepared to respond to those bad actors.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) like Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing allow professionals to analyze data with new speed and accuracy. Combining AI and crisis-hardened expertise helps deliver supply chain illumination solutions at scale for government agencies and corporates.

As we’ve seen in other times of severe financial crisis, other frauds are also uncovered. A recent article in The Economist entitled “The economic crisis will expose a decade’s worth of corporate fraud quotes Warren Buffett, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” Following 9/11, while investigating the attack itself, we learned of frauds already underway. I recall uncovering large credit card bust-out schemes, mainly due to how motivated I was to help with the 9/11 investigation.

Another example of similar discoveries was the Madoff Ponzi Scheme. After the 2008 financial crisis, Madoff’s investors tried to withdraw funds only to find that their funds had been purloined.  In the economic crisis connected to the pandemic, companies and investors should exercise vigilance not only over new risks, but for issues that may have escaped pre-virus attention. AI-powered analytics can help in this regard as well, highlighting inconsistencies for intervention.

Similar to our response to 9/11, we are galvanized as a society to beat Covid-19 and all that comes with it.  It is important to strengthen controls to prevent and detect fraud, or to rapidly respond when attacked.

Author’s Note

While much has changed since I originally wrote this article, I remain confident that the same spirit of coming together through adversity highlighted here will help the country heal and come out of this turmoil a better society.

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