Tuesday 23 July 2019

The curious tale of a £600 fraud

A gentleman Mr Barrett would like to have a conversation with
A week or so ago I received an email from John Barrett, Subpostmaster at New Quay post office in West Wales.

John permanently closed his branch last weekend after being held accountable by the Post Office for being the victim of a sleight-of-hand fraud at his counter which had left him £600 out of pocket.

At first John didn't even know his assistant had been duped. John just found a £600 hole in his accounts. He went back through his Horizon receipts but couldn't work out what had gone wrong.

On Friday 12 July he reviewed the CCTV footage in his branch and spotted a suspicious customer. "Gut feeling said there was something wrong," he says "but it took about 4 viewings of the video in slow motion to spot what he had done."

John reported the crime to the police and to the Post Office's own security network Grapevine late on Friday 12 July. He called the Post Office's helpdesk the next morning. He was told he would be held liable.
"This is despite my contract clearly stating that I am not liable for losses caused by Criminal Activity by a third party. They cite not following procedures as the reason - I argue we did."
John immediately shut down his post office and told the National Federation of Subpostmasters and the Post Office what he was doing.
"New Quay post office only just breaks even financially and I was willing to run it as a service to the community.... However, running at a loss because of criminal activity is something I cannot do."
John asked for a senior manager to contact him and told the Helpdesk the Post Office would remain closed until that happened. He was told that a contracts manager would contact him the following Monday as nobody in branch support services would be available until then. The branch was shut for the weekend.

On Monday a contracts manager from the Post Office contacted John and told him he would be held liable for the £600 loss. John told the Post Office where they could stick their branch and resigned.

He informed his NFSP rep, who replied:
"Post Office Ltd's policy has always been not to accept the liability for this type of fraud...  It has been a frustration of ours not to be able to persuade POL to change their stance on this... I am sorry that you feel you have to close the office but fully understand the reasoning behind it... please accept my apologies for not being able to persue [sic] this further."
 John describes this shoulder-shrugging response as "useless".

John Barrett, New Quay Post Office
On Tuesday 14 July I asked John for a few more details and permission to publish his story. He very kindly sent me the above photo and a link to a video of the fraud.

On Wednesday 15 July I approached the Post Office for a comment and got this:
"We were very concerned to hear about the issue faced by Mr Barrett, our postmaster at New Quay.  We have listened carefully to the concerns raised and we have been liaising with him to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. We are pleased to confirm that New Quay Post Office will reopen today."
Hang on. What?! 

I wondered if I had missed something in John's email. It was only by chance I found a different email in my spam folder - a circular John had sent on Tuesday. It read:

"I really did not believe I would be writing this, certainly not so soon," he wrote, "but New Quay Post Office will be open for business as usual from 8am on Wednesday 17 July. I am sure there will be many sighs of relief from the whole community."

The email went on: 
"My area manager called today with the opening line "What can the Post Office do to allow you to re-open?". We had a long conversation about the issues and of trust and we ended with three things that were needed:

1. Not holding me liable for the £600 loss.

2. A change in policy and procedures by the Post Office such that Postmasters who call the helpline to report criminal action are not automatically assumed to be liable but instead are supported and helped and any judgements come later after looking at all the facts.

3. A change in attitude from Post Office senior management toward Postmasters such that we can trust each other and not feel they are out to hold us liable for everything that goes wrong.

I said on the phone that 1 and 2 are probably not difficult but I could not suggest a solution for 3.
I came off the phone with a glimmer of hope but not optimistic.

She called me back later in the day and..... 
1. I will not be held liable for the loss. 
2. A meeting will take place tomorrow between senior managers in branch support to review how they handle calls from Postmasters to ensure a more supportive approach is taken. 
3. A senior executive (head of Loss Prevention) will come to New Quay to sit down with me and listen to my concerns with a view to getting a better understanding of problems faced by Postmasters and ways to improve relationships.

YAY Post Office - I feel like David has pricked the heel of Goliath and has his attention.

A BIG thank you for the fantastic support shown by everyone, including my Area Manager who deserves a pay rise 😉

John Barrett"
Well, ain't that a thing?

Something of a surprise...
I called John up on Thursday to find out more. Turns out that the Post Office's assumption of liability was based on the fact that this fraud was well known and the Post Office had warned Subpostmasters repeatedly about it.

"Their view" said John, "was that there was enough information and training on this for the Subpostmasters to be aware of this. And I said - no there's not. I've never seen anything about this - I've never seen any training, support or anything like that and I've never had any security training at all."

It transpires it was all on a website called One Post Office, run by the Post Office, which John has never heard of. I was a little bemused - even I've heard of it. John explained:
"It's all down to when we started three years ago. This Post Office took a long time to get open because the Network Transformation team where dragging their heels. Then another Post Office up the road suddenly closed and there was massive time pressure to get our office open. We were allocated five days of a trainers' time, and those five days I was in hospital with kidney stones."
"I never got any of that training. So they sent her back but they could only allocate two days of her time. So she spent two days with me just operating the Horizon terminal - not much else at all."
John did not find out about One Post Office until this weekend, during which the Post Office told him "you've been told often enough about this type of scam - there's a training video about it. You should be aware and you shouldn't have fallen for it."

Something John would have agreed with had the information ever reached him.

"And that's the root of the problem. The lack of training."

Reverse ferret

What I found unusual was the Post Office's reverse ferret. Having decided John was liable they then decided he wasn't and have now, it seems, formally agreed to write off the £600. I wondered if John had any theories as to why.

"Public support." he said, "My local MP’s office, Welsh Assembly member and members of the press and the public were all contacting the Post Office to ask what was going on or to express outrage. Also, our Facebook Page lit up with supportive comments and shares. Locals came into the shop and were asking what they could do to help including offers of raising money to cover the loss. I think all this attention was noticed at the top of the Post Office and they instructed managers to divert from their normal course of blindly following policy and procedures."

I asked John what he made of all this - there are obviously lessons to be learned on all sides. He said:
"I hope the lessons learned by the Post Office are the importance of proper training and of trust. Trust that 99.9% of their Postmasters are imperfect but honest hard working people, and trust that their managers can make sensible decisions if given the latitude to do so. Pursuing the High Court trial case and spending millions on legal fees that could be used to better remunerate Postmasters is about egos at the top and not helpful in building trust. Settle it, learn from it and build a better relationship, that would give me confidence that real change is on the way."
I asked what he had learned.
"It’s only fair to say what I have learned, and that is NOT to be so trusting in our normally safe little community. To do that my staff and I need to be better trained and be more aware of bad guys that will visit us from time to time."
Whatever the reason, it's nice to tell a story with a happy ending for once.

Oh and despite the clear video evidence, the police were not interested in investigating the crime at John's counter. They gave him the number for Action Fraud and told him to file it with them instead. John didn't bother.

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