The New Gordian Knot

The New Gordian Knot by David Macfie

 The captain threw a file across the desk. Fletcher just managed to intercept it before it slid right off the end.

“The suspect’s name is Eric Randle. His manager has reported suspicions of fraud and several workmates say his behavior has changed recently. They think there might be marital problems. Right now there’s no case but we’ve been asked to investigate. The DA is a friend of the manager so there’s pressure from above. Get on it right away.”

Fletcher knew the briefing was finished and took the hint. He returned to his desk and started to read. The file was flimsy and contained no substance at all. Fletcher sighed.

“I hate it when this happens,” he murmured to himself. “Some guy gets his underpants in a knot about something and it lands on my desk.”

He powered up his computer and got onto the internet. He found Eric Randle quickly. The man was a middle level technician in an ICT business selling hardware, networking and software as well as consulting services. Randle was a software developer and his resume showed he was pretty good at it.

Fletcher took notes of everything he thought was relevant then looked into the guy’s personal life. He was thirty six, married to Margaret and had two sons Jimmy, ten, and Robbie, fourteen. Fletcher checked the social media platforms for each of the family members. He began to get evidence of family problems. The posts and tweets from the boys showed the elder to be a rebel with tendencies towards substance abuse and the wild side, while the younger had behavioral issues and was having problems at school. The wife was clearly a socialite, with expensive tastes, who liked to party. She posted images of herself having fun, often with different men not her husband on her arm – a clear suggestion of marital problems. He checked the family’s credit ratings and tried to identify the men in the images. The more he dug, the more evidence he found of a family in crisis. A serially, unfaithful wife, bleeding the family finances dry, dysfunctional kids and a harassed husband with financial problems, confirmed by Eric’s credit rating. It showed he was already in a debt relief program.

“More than enough motive for trying to get more money somehow,” mused the detective. Now he turned his attention to the business. He made a list of those who had contributed to the file and noted their details in his little black book. Then he made appointments to meet with each of them. Next he went onto the company website and studied the management team and the products and services. He took notes of areas where fraud might be possible then phoned the manager, who’d provided the suspicions, and arranged to meet with him in half an hour.

Fletcher arrived a few minutes early and was ushered into the manager’s office right on time. Dan was a large, overweight, hail-fellow-well-met sort of guy with a loud hearty voice and a big smile. Fletcher instinctively disliked him, but he smiled back and properly introduced himself, showing his badge as confirmation. Dan then irritated the crap out of him by calling him Fletch.

“What can I do for you Fletch?” he asked, looking serious and focused.

“I need some background on Eric. Why you became suspicious, what he’s working on, his changes in behavior, what you know of his friends and family – that sort of thing. And anything else you think might be important. I’d also like your permission to interview the people whose names were in this brief.”

He handed the folder over to Dan, who took a moment to skim through it.

“No problem with the interviews, but I get why you’re here. Thin on detail isn’t it? Now, before I fill you in, are there other things you’ll need? Might as well get it all on the table, Right?”

Fletcher nodded. “This guy’s patronizing me,” he thought, suppressing a grimace of distaste.

“Yes, I’ll need a list of customers and suppliers, with contact details. If fraud is happening it’s probably affecting them. Also, I’d like details of the guy’s access rights to your computer systems. I need to know where he can go and what he can do. Last I need access to one of your best technicians, to help me to look for hacking into your data and systems.”

“Whew! Is that all? You’re pretty thorough aren’t you?”

“Have to be or I wouldn’t catch the bad guys.”

“OK. Give me an email address and I’ll get all of that sent to you.” He’d been scribbling as the detective outlined his needs. Now he looked Fletcher straight in the face.

“Why does this guy grate on me so much?” the cop wondered.

“Where to begin…,” mused the big man, looking thoughtful. “The changes in behavior, more than anything, made me suspicious. Eric has always been a loner at work. He doesn’t mix much but he used to be regular in terms of timekeeping. Now he’s downright secretive and he gets in early and leaves late. I got to wondering what he’s up to. He’s working on App’s for our loyalty program and that’s all up to date, but I don’t think it’s as much work as the hours he’s doing. His stuff is good and he’s usually quick.”

“Have you asked him about the extra hours?”

“Yes. He said he was working on a new idea that will leapfrog our competitors in the loyalty area. He said he’d show me soon. He told me it’s not ready to look at.”

“You were right, that is suspicious. And his access?”

“Complete access. We have several servers and he has sign on via a laptop.”

“Would I be able, with your technician’s help, to get into the laptop as well as the servers?”

“That can be arranged, yes. And I’ll send you the stuff on the family and friends with the other information you asked for.”

Fletcher heard the dismissal in the man’s voice and stood up.

“May I interview the others now?”

Dan called his PA and told her to help Mr Fletcher.

The detective interviewed four of Eric’s work colleagues. He got confirmation of the behavior changes and the secretiveness. He also found that Eric had very few friends. He worked and went home and that seemed to be all. And, as far as they knew, he worked at home as well. On the next day Fletcher received the supplier and client details and the name and contact details of the recommended technician.

Over the next several days, the detective investigated anything and everything about Eric’s life. He had the man followed. This confirmed a regular daily routine of work, home, work, sleep then back to work. Clearly, that was a dead end. He then got a court order to access Eric’s bank accounts and the details of his debt relief programs. He also got another order to compel other banks to disclose any other accounts. He found three more in different names but with the same photo and the same biometrics. These had significant balances and regular deposits, with few withdrawals. All told they contained just over a million dollars. The few withdrawals were sent out of the country to unknown destinations. More than a million and a half had been removed and the accounts went back over three years. Meanwhile, Eric’s official accounts showed a sad story of a man in serious financial difficulty. But the problem, Fletcher had was that he couldn’t figure out where the money was coming from. The deposits were all in fictitious names, from different banks.

In all there were deposits from six different banks. He’d been to these with his court orders. The accounts existed but the owners’ weren’t real people and the deposits into these accounts were immediately transferred out again. The deposits also came from multiple banks. All in all, the situation was as tangled as he could imagine. To make it worse all the accounts had been opened electronically and all deposits and transfers were by EFT.

“This reminds me of the Greek fable of the Gordian knot,” he thought. “It’s certainly a complex combination of inter-tangled knots, but I don’t have a sword to slice it in half like Alexander the Great did. I need a creative solution to cut this personal Gordian knot.”

He pressed on. He now knew Eric was collecting large sums of money from somewhere. He decided to try and locate the original source of the funds. With help from Dan’s technician and cooperation from the banks, he began to trace a single deposit from one of the three funded accounts backwards to its source. Immediately he realized that this was going to be a serious challenge. That single deposit came from a bank that had been fed from several other banks with smaller transactions. He chose one and went back from there. Again he found an account fed from multiple banks in even smaller deposits.

This went on through several more layers until, finally, the deposits came from accounts that belonged to Eric’s employer or one of their clients. These original deposits were all in the amount of five dollars. Fletcher puzzled over this for a while then suddenly he had a light bulb moment in his head. He quickly went back to the start and traced back from another final deposit and then another. All went through the same tangled process. As a final verification of his theory, he compared documents from suppliers to the company to clients and back. He now knew what Eric had done. He made an appointment to see Dan.

After the pleasantries were over, Fletcher got down to business.

“Turns out that Mr Randle is not only a good developer, he is also an expert hacker. He electronically opened multiple accounts with multiple banks, all in fictitious names but the same photo and biometrics. He then hacked into your computer systems and added some implants. He was intercepting all the invoices from your suppliers and modifying them by adding five dollars to the amounts owing. Your finance department paid according to that revised amount from the altered invoice they received. He then intercepted the EFT payment and rerouted the five dollars so that the amount received by the supplier was as originally invoiced. He was doing the same with all invoices raised by you to your customers so that they all ended up paying an extra five dollars, which was also intercepted and rerouted. He created a pyramid of bank accounts and randomized the routing of the individual five rand deposits so that they went to different accounts every time. At each level of his pyramid he passed on bigger and bigger randomized deposits until he reached the layer of three accounts. He’s been doing this for three years or so and has diverted in excess of two and a half million dollars.”

“Do you have a warrant for his arrest?” asked Dan, his face flushed with rage.

“I do. Can we find him now?”

“Of course. He mustn’t get away with this.”

Dan led the way to Eric’s cubicle. It was empty. Dan asked around. Finally, frustrated, he returned to his own office and asked his PA if she knew where Eric was.”

“He called in sick this morning,” she answered. “But he said he’d try to come in later so I didn’t bother you.”

Fletcher went cold.

“Dan, may I use your computer for a moment?” he asked, in a tight voice. Dan nodded. Fletcher sat and accessed each of the three pyramid apex accounts. All were empty through transactions dated the day before.

“I think the bird has flown,” he said, solemnly. “All the money is gone as of last night. My guess is he phoned this morning from a pay phone at the airport. And, I bet he left with a forged passport in another fictitious name. I don’t know how, but he knew we were on to him and he’s done a runner. I’ll go back to the station and start a search but I don’t think we’ll find him. He’s been far too smart.”

Dan found nothing to say. He stood transfixed, with his mouth hanging open.