Fraudsters have always been cruel, but since lockdown, they’ve gone all out to hurt and steal from innocent victims, like poor Lucy, an elderly border terrier. Her sorry saga, recounted in the interview below, shows how criminals use old tricks to con millions into parting with their cash.

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You could dismiss hapless Lucy as comical if she were not such a true-to-life depiction of the cruel victimisation that’s occurring across the world every day. Lucy is not a joke; she’s an illustration of the cruelty that fraudsters dispense, and it’s not new; it’s just increasing.

Last week, City of London Police said that, since 1 March 2020, Action Fraud has received 6,000 reports of pandemic-related scams resulting in £34.5m being stolen from victims in England and Wales. I want this to stop, which is why I’ll explain below what can be done to protect the innocent and why digital transformation in the online world actually presents a brilliant business opportunity.  

In 2017, long before Coronavirus hit, there were warnings that fraud was at epidemic levels, and in 2018, BBC television again asked me how we could fix it. We’ve known what needs to be fixed for a long time, but it hasn’t happened, and sadly, with online fraud continuing to rise, the sharp spike seen during lockdown was to be expected. In the United States, reports about money lost to social media scams more than tripled, with a significant increase in 2020. In the United Kingdom, 1 in 15 people fall victim to fraud each year, with the Internet believed to play a role in more than half of those cases.

Victims of online fraud and consumer protection groups are angry that platforms are not doing more to protect their users, and there are calls for greater regulation and penalties. That may happen in time, but there is another, more immediate reason why online platforms need to do more; because if they don’t, they will lose customers.

Automation, bots and artificial intelligence are fabulous tools to help humans deliver jobs for customers. I’ve seen this with the new AI tools my colleagues at Guildhawk have launched during the pandemic – Guildhawk Aided™ and Text Perfect™. We don’t make a big song and dance about it, but when you see the quality a perfectly orchestrated blend of human and machine tools can produce, and how this can save customers having to fix other people’s work, you want to take to the dance floor. It should be borne in mind, however, that the technology is just an aid; we have to beware of the hype and hot AIr often associated with AI. Ultimately, customers are humans, and humans want to deal with people they like and trust, and who use smart digital technology to produce better results for them.

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In the United Kingdom, 1 in 15 people fall victim to fraud each year, with the Internet believed to play a role in more than half of those cases.

Customers are reassured when they know advanced software is being used well, so it’s important to be open about what you do and what you don’t do with technology. It is sad that trust has become a casualty when great technological advances have brought such good. The Cambridge Analytica data misuse case and other scandals about how companies use customer data, combined with the lack of action to prevent fake identities and fraud, means there is now a huge trust deficit at the heart of the online virtual world; a world that could do so much more good if we made it safer.

Online services that began as a convenience before COVID-19, have now evolved into essentials, and enabled businesses to survive. The transformation to the online, work-from-home world was as seamless as it was remarkable for its amazing achievements. An army of delivery troops and vehicles kept the nation supplied for months, even in the face of a loo roll panic, thanks to state-of-the-art global to local supply chains. This and the stellar rise in revenues (and share prices for the likes of Zoom) is the prize for businesses that foresaw opportunities and invested in the digital transformation tools customers needed.

Sadly, as honest people were adapting to a world in isolation, the crooks were planning their assault, and their chosen battlefield was the Internet. Crooks know that businesses have protected themselves, but have not made the online world safe enough to protect their customers from fraudsters; in fact they’ve made it a heaven for crooks. Fraudsters love the anonymity that platforms give them, be they e-commerce sites where counterfeiters can sell fake goods or even bogus vaccines, dating and charity giving sites where cruel criminals play on the kindness of people, or business and social networking platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram where fraudsters build their own fake identities and create the much needed ‘Fake Trust’ they use to fool people – even banks.

Platforms risk heavy fines and sanctions if they lose personal data, trade in counterfeit goods or knowingly permit fraudsters to launder money, but they know the likelihood of that is moderate. They also know that a fine or penalty that sounds big is actually a lot less than the amount they would have to invest in digital transformation to adequately protect customers online. We may see the authorities use regulatory powers and penalties in future as they are faster, easier and cheaper than criminal prosecutions. This aside, online platforms may find they lose customers to competitors long before that happens, if they lose that crucial trust.

Where there is a big risk, there’s usually also a great opportunity, and this certainly applies here. There is a gap in the global market for the Most Trusted Integrated Online Marketplace, where identities are verified, fraud is stopped and customers ‘feel safe and happy’.

This presents a huge opportunity for a brand to gain massive competitive edge by becoming the Most Trusted Online Marketplace. I know this from the customers I work with internationally. Trust sits at the heart of everything that Guildhawk has done since it was founded 20 years ago this month by our coding- and culture-loving CEO, Jurga Zilinskiene MBE. Even our name and our registered trademark reflect our founder’s story, and the importance of trust and always trading with integrity.

As a former policeman turned charity chairman, and now a director of a Queen’s Award-winning business, I’m often asked what practical steps an organisation can take to build trust, and win and retain great customers. On television and at conferences, I always stress the importance of training staff and gaining independent certifications. Many customers seek out Guildhawk because it has the ISO:9001 quality standard and ISO:27001, the international standard for information security management. In fact, we were the first in our sector globally to achieve this in 2013. Independently certified standards and external audits like penetration testing can’t give a 100% guarantee, but they show you care, and customers trust people who care.      

Man shopping online

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The oxygen that allows trust and integrity to flourish in an organisation is the tone from the top. Like the Captain of a ship carrying volatile liquids, the leader must steer the ship and set the highest standard for the crew in order to win their trust and protect everyone from danger. To protect an organisation and customers from fraud, leaders of online platforms have to be visible, set high standards and achieve them, even if it reduces their profits. 

Zoom’s stellar growth during lockdown is a reminder of the rewards for those who invest in digital transformation that is efficient, effective and secure. Leaders, investors and shareholders looking for the next big thing in the digital space may want to listen again to my ‘broken record’ appeals to invest in advanced algorithms to protect customers from fraud. Why? What’s changed? First: fraud is now too difficult to spot, even for suspicious souls like me. Second: the awesome technology to transform and solve this problem is now available.  

And what’s the other big opportunity that so many companies overlook? Language. To build trust and loyalty with staff and customers around the world, successful businesses talk trust and safety in every language. I know this particularly well because so many great customers, like the British Standards Institution (BSI), trust the people and systems at Guildhawk to help them be heard everywhere. Think online health and safety training for the global workforce, available in 35 languages rather than just English. That not only gets your important message across to everyone; it makes you trusted in every language.       

If you’re not convinced by Lucy or by me, you should remember that competitors Alibaba, Alipay and Ant are ready with Smart integrated e-commerce solutions to enable rapid digital transformation and help customers to grow like never before. They will quickly take the prize from incumbents who don’t see trust as the new number 1 commodity.