Lost in translocation, by Adrian P Fayter
‘Sorry’ often is the hardest word, especially if you are an Englishman trying to say it in Icelandic. Fortunately for Connor, he has a bit of a gift for languages… Or perhaps unfortunately: if you go back a bit, you could say that it was the gift that led him into trouble in the first place. That, and his charm and good looks, too, of course.
Connor always thought he was wasted working in a Jobcentre, and he was probably right; the guy has a First in modern languages from Oxford, after all. But if you spend two years with your feet up, drinking sangria and teaching ‘business English’ to gullible Spaniards, and then come home to a deep economic recession, well, you’re lucky if you can get any work at all; so when you are offered an entry-level post in the Civil Service, it can seem like a godsend. The interview panel liked Connor, and told him all about the grading structure and the steps that could lead him towards a half-reasonable salary and a modicum of workplace responsibility. Sadly, they failed to say that moving even one step would also depend on the early death of half a dozen colleagues in the promotion queue before him.
So, Connor wasn’t that long into the job before he began looking as miserable and defeated as the rest of the box clerks. But he perked up one afternoon when a gorgeous young Spanish woman came in to make a claim. She had left her au-pair job and, rather than go home, she wanted to find other work here in Hampton. Being Spanish, she naturally had the right to be paid her benefits anywhere in the EU (although why you would chose Hampton rather than Paris, Piraeus or even Peterborough is anybody’s guess). Connor immediately began chatting her up in idiomatic Castilian; he sympathized with her situation, offered to interpret for her when she came back for her next interview, and arranged to meet her for a glass of wine later in the afternoon. Soon afterwards, he discovered there was a whole community of foreign child-minders in the area, most attending a popular language school that advertises itself as on the ‘outskirts’ of Cambridge and ‘a short train ride’ from central London. As time went on, it was quite sweet to see him arrive at work with a smile and a spring in his step, although Diana did spoil things by reminding him of our Ethics Guidelines, which state that ‘sexual relationships with claimants represent a potential conflict of interest, of the most serious type.’
Which may have been where he got the idea in the first place…
It had been a long time since I’d had to put the screws on one of our own employees. What we call internal fraud investigations are extremely rare, which you could say is a testament to the honesty, the incorruptibility of our workforce. Or maybe its timidity. When I told Connor I needed to see him about some of his clients, I was hoping he wouldn’t guess exactly which ones, because it’s always useful to retain some element of surprise. I’d been working undercover on a building site that week, and I might even have dropped a hint that it was the twin-brother, hearing-impaired plasterers that I was concerned about.
Instead, I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Susanna Cumplido López de Málaga.’
Connor went a bit pale. ‘I told Di months ago that I’d broken up with her.’
I turned my screen round to face him and I pushed the mouse across. ‘I sometimes get a bit lost since the last upgrade,’ I lied. ‘Would you mind checking? Date of claim?’
Connor read it out. I continued, ‘So she’s been signing on as unemployed for thirteen months. And definitely no part time or temporary work declared to us since then?’
‘And one change of address? Halfway through the period of the claim?’
I stood up and walked over to the window, and wondered vaguely to myself whether I would ever work in an office with view that wasn’t mainly of pigeon droppings. ‘When exactly did you last see Ms López, Connor?’
‘If you refer to a Spaniard by only one of their surnames, then it’s the first one. Ms Cumplido, not Ms López.’
‘And when did you last see her?’
Connor looked at his hands. ‘Last time she signed, of course. A week and a bit ago. Just after I came back from being on leave.’
‘And you only see her when she comes in to sign on, do you? You never bump into her outside of work?’
‘What? No. What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You never happen to see her around generally?’
‘Despite the fact that the second address, the current address on her claim is two doors down from where you live?’
I left the interview room to make a couple of cups of tea, and Diana gave me a meaningful look as I passed her desk. Two of the younger box clerks suddenly stopped whispering as I approached. I wouldn’t want to make assumptions, but since both of them had gone out with, and been dumped by Connor recently, I was guessing that they weren’t discussing our new client database or the latest Health and Safety guidelines about claimants with visible skin disease.
I felt a bit sorry for Connor. He’d treated a lot of women badly, but I understood that something very special had happened to him in the course of his time working for us. You don’t fly off abroad every three weeks unless it’s love, do you? Certainly not if you’ve been having the pick of Hampton’s foreign language students for months, while still managing more than one post-Christmas party office romance. But there would be a number of colleagues who were thinking he couldn’t be trusted, and therefore wondering what exactly was being discussed in there with the Senior Benefit Fraud Officer…
‘How was Iceland?’ I asked conversationally, as I handed Connor his mug. ‘That was, what, your fourth visit? Must be costing you a packet.’
Connor looked up with a sour expression. ‘Let’s leave my private life out of it, OK? What rule says I can’t use up my leave on long weekends? Just because all the other losers here spend two weeks on a beach in the middle of the summer. And then six weeks moaning about how tough it is to be back.’
‘Ah, yes, annual leave…’ I flicked casually through the paper files that I had placed on the table. ‘Strange how, on the dates when you were away and Ms Cumplido had to sign on…’ I looked up and fixed him with my best investigator’s stare, ‘we can clearly see her signature on the coupon… But it has not been initialled by the box clerk. On three separate occasions! Our colleagues who were covering your shifts must be very, very lax…’
‘Well, you know how it is on signing day. The pressure. It’s very busy; you don’t always remember to tick every box.’
‘Of course. It’s been a while since I was a box clerk, but I know exactly what you mean.’
I started shuffling the paperwork as if I might have finished. It’s a nice little technique to get your interviewee to start to relax. Then I said, ‘And the payments were made several days late, too.’
‘The payments were made late. She signed on as usual, apparently, according to the date stamp on the coupon. But the payments show up on the computer as being authorised late. Authorised each time after you were back from annual leave.’
‘Yes, well, sometimes payments get missed. You know that.’
‘But when that happens, the claimant usually comes in or rings up and raises hell about the error. There’s no record of that. Just late payments going out.’
‘She’s Spanish. Maybe she doesn’t have the confidence to complain.’
‘Yeah, you’re right,’ I said. ‘Who could she complain to? You? The guy who shagged her, dumped her and then went out with the gorgeous Icelandic babe who sat next to her in her English class?’
‘You’ve no fucking right to talk to me like that!’
‘No, but I’ve every right to prosecute you for gross misconduct and financial fraud.’
Ghost claims, we call them around here, although there are much ruder terms that are used in Jobcentres all across the country. They’re not so easy to manage nowadays: for one thing most benefits are paid directly into a claimant’s bank account, and the rare times when payment is arranged by girocheque, post offices tend to want ID before they will cash it. So even if a clerk is clever enough to find a means of creating a ghost (which in essence just depends on a National Insurance Number and a genuine-looking paper trail), getting hold of the money isn’t a walk in the park. There’s always a considerable risk. And since being caught will result in dismissal, prosecution, possible jail sentence and even loss of pension rights, you can see why most staff just stick to stealing the pens and printer paper… But you had to hand it to Connor. What better way to create a ghost than to keep alive a foreign claimant who has gone home? If you can find a friendly address for the giro, then your only problem is what to do on the days your ghost ‘signs on’ and you are not present in the office yourself.
‘So, I phoned up her previous landlady,’ I told him, ‘and she confirmed that Ms Cumplido had left on the date shown on our records. And that her husband had driven them all to the airport.’
‘She must have been going home for a visit.’
‘But there’s no holiday form in the paperwork.’
‘You know that claimants rarely declare a holiday. Because they don’t get paid if they can’t show evidence that they’re still looking for work.’
‘But you see, when I said “them all” just now, I didn’t mean just Ms Cumplido and Mr and Mrs Smith. There were two of her friends from the language school in the car with them. And one of the friends also has an open benefit claim here, which is also primarily administered by… you.’ I lifted up a second claim booklet from the papers in front of me, and, still looking deadpan, I raised one eyebrow.
Psychologists have defined five stages that we may go through at times of loss or bereavement, and I see a similar pattern occur when I carry out fraud interviews. It’s not so much the loss of income but the loss of self-esteem at being found out. The good name lost in transgression. Connor was pretty much finished with the denial stage, had shown a very brief flash of anger, and would probably bypass bargaining: he knew quite well that we had gone too far for me to shred the evidence, even if I had wanted to. Connor’s shoulders were sinking; he took out a tissue and blew his nose. He was pretty much into stage four – depression – but if I managed to appear sympathetic enough, he might eventually pass into a state of acceptance and confess everything; though as the Psychologists point out, not everyone dealing with loss will manage to reach the final stage.
‘Everything you’ve said is circumstantial, though,’ he said sadly, showing that you can, of course, be depressed and in denial at the same time. ‘It’s not exactly proof.’
‘I agree.’ I nodded. ‘But we can contact these young women via their forwarding addresses; we can ask for information from the Spanish Ministry of Employment; we can even use a forensic graphologist to analyse the signatures on the coupons. We can check with the Post Office regarding the cashing of giros; we can ask the Police to call at your neighbour’s house about the delivery of the same. We could even ask a certain young woman in Iceland what she might or might not know about all this…’ I lifted my hands in what Herman calls my gesture of surrender. ‘You’re a clever guy, Connor, and you know as well as I do that I don’t have a watertight case. But you also know that it’ll be better in the long run to give up now.’
Perhaps somewhere in a parallel universe, Connor is cutting me in on a deal involving benefit payments for all his ex-girlfriends and all of his teaching colleagues who are still safely working abroad. We are making a fortune, and as a fraud expert, I know exactly how to hide the evidence, starting with the mysterious disappearance of all claim booklets and signature coupons; lost in transit no doubt, location unknown. It happens in the most organised of offices. The paper trail gone cold…
Or perhaps instead I am the one sitting on a warm balcony, sipping Rioja and chatting to my gorgeous girlfriend in fluent Spanish while the sun sets over the midsummer Mediterranean Sea. A little light teaching in the mornings, a siesta in the afternoon, and no need for benefit fraud to cross my mind at all.
But in the real world, I am walking out of a drab little interview room in a non-descript East Midlands office, leaving a handsome, intelligent, well-qualified and anxious young man to phone his girlfriend and explain why he is going to have to cancel his next Air Iceland flight.
There are times when I quite like my job; but very often I don’t. It wasn’t hard for me to say sorry to Connor at the end of our interview, because the difficult part was already done, and also because in his case, despite everything, I really meant it. He’d been tempted by the money and he had succumbed, but he hadn’t wanted it purely for his own selfish pleasure; there had been more to it than that. Call it some sort of crime of passion… And who says a fraud investigator can’t be an incurable romantic and commiserate with the girlfriend, too? It shouldn’t be so hard: Fyrirgefŏu.