FRAUD FOCUS PODCAST: Fraud Prevention Solutions using the English Language

Jessica Kimbell, GovNet
January 9, 2024

Dr Elisabeth Carter sits down with Mark Cheeseman OBE to discuss the interplay between language and fraud, the need to change our perception of fraud victims, and a few ways the public sector can do to help combat the UK's most common crime threat.

Watch or listen to the discussion in full here: 


Don't have time to watch the full episode? Here are a few excerpts: 


What was your journey into the fraud space?

Like many people who are in the fraud space, I came by a bit of a scenic route. I'm a linguist by background and I started in psycholinguistics - looking at the way that language is used and what parts of the brain light up when we speak, including what happens to your language when there's a serious injury. I started looking at dysfunctions of language, and then decided to look further into deliberate dysfunctions - so not medical dysfunctions, but deliberate ones.

I looked at police interviews to start with: one of the most highly constrained interactional encounters that you can find. I found loads of amazing things, including some about laughter: how laughter can be used by police officers and suspects to do different things. For example by suspects to try and make themselves seem more truthful and to try and build a rapport.

And then I moved from looking at rapport in these very legal settings to settings where crimes are taking place - so fraudulent encounters. This is something that is very close to my heart, not because I've been a victim of fraud, but because I think grooming and manipulation of language for criminal gain is such a misuse of language.

And as a through-and-through linguist who also is a criminologist, I find language so fascinating. For someone to take something that can do so much good in this world, and use to deliberately and systematically destroy somebody financially and emotionally - to me is the antithesis of what language should be about. So I was drawn to it in order to try and find some kind of counter to it.


We always need to remember the amount of thought and effort that is going into committing fraud.

That is why we are developing profession capabilities within the public sector - because we need to put a lot of thought and effort into the other side. We can't just assume that we'll be able to counter it when fraudsters are putting so much thought and effort into their scams.

Did you know that they have their own conferences? I've seen hidden camera footage – they have the conference tables, with wine and everything. They're exchanging information and they treat it as a business.

It helps to deny that there is criminality going on, by hiding within a veil of legitimacy - with conferences, CPD events, training, playbooks scripts... All of the trappings of legitimate business.

And this is serious organized crime, isn't it? It's a multi-billion pound industry, and they put as much thought into it as the good guys - that's something that we have to really be cognizant about.

We also need to be agile, just like the scammers will be – we can’t just stick with one solution. They will try and use our techniques and our tactics, and use them against victims.

One particular tactic that I think is truly awful: where victims are about to send some money, and the fraudster will say: “FYI, the bank counter fraud team might say this or that to stop you from getting your money.” Scammers are very aware about what counter fraud teams do, the scripts they use, the order in which they do it, and what to tell the victim to do to get around them. So when the victim tries to transfer the money and the counter fraud team gets in touch and says exactly what the fraudster has said they’ll say, it reinforces the fraud's legitimacy and puts up a barrier between the victim and the very people that are trying to protect them.

So we have to be really aware that they are operating on that level of psychological manipulation and have that much knowledge of the systems.


Did you know...

A stat that I've read is that older people that become a victim of fraud are two and a half times more likely to be in assisted living or pass away in the 5 years after they've become a victim of fraud, than their non-victim peers.


How can we use language to counter fraud?

There are loads of things we can do, one of which is to try and stop doing things that fraudster do. Fraudster do something called ‘genre mapping’ - using the same techniques that legitimate players use to give their communication an air of credibility; right down to putting terms and conditions at the bottom, or playing a recording of phones in the background of the 'call centre' they're phoning from. It's often quite subliminal messaging.

What legitimate companies can do is not engage in these gray areas of advertising and sales e.g. saying “buy in the next week and you get a discount” or having a ticking clock in the corner of your online retail outlet. We want to capture the public's attention, but we have to make sure that we don't use those same techniques. Then we're just reinforcing the fraudsters techniques. 

So what can we do? We have to engage the public imagination about what they think fraud is. Quite often people think that fraud is something that happens to somebody else; and we have to change that narrative. Fraud can happen to anybody. And in fact it happens to everybody - you don't have to lose money for somebody to have performed a fraud on you. If you get a text message or any kind of communication from someone who's using that to try and deprive you of your money, that is fraud, whether or not you then send your money.

It's the most commonly experienced crime in the UK. And that will start to get rid of that mystique around it and then make people more receptive to these messages that we're trying to put out there.


For the full interview between Mark Cheeseman OBE and Dr Elisabeth Carter, click here

And for other Fraud Focus episodes, including Duncan Tessier, Director of Economic Crime at the UK Home Office; Mike Haley, CEO of CIFAS, and Alex Rothwell, CEO of the NHS Counter Fraud Authority please click here