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Investigator unearths false claims of harassment

By Kathy Rumleski, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

A woman’s claim of sexual harassment at the office seemed like a slam-dunk case until Toronto forensic accountant and investigator Dave Oswald discovered information that the employer hadn’t been able to unearth.

Fraudulent claims of harassment are more common than people think, he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“It’s interesting how easily this type of fraud is committed and how hard it is for companies to find out the truth, especially when the person is in a place of trust,” says Oswald, the founder and owner of the Oakville-based white-collar crime investigation boutique Forensic Restitution.

In this case of a false accusation, he says a woman complained to the human resources department about a male co-worker sending her lewd emails.

“She went to HR with copies of about 50 emails,” Oswald says. “She broke into tears and said, ‘I can’t put up with this anymore.’”

The complainant alleged the emails started with the man commenting on the women’s appearance, and escalated to graphic details of a sexual nature, he says.

When called to the human resources office, Oswald says the accused was perplexed and told the manager that he hadn’t sent those emails.

The man was placed on suspension but because he continued to deny the accusations, the company called in Oswald to prove that the emails came from the accused.

“We had a look at his computer, and we found none of these emails. We did a search for word associations and patterns that were allegedly used in the emails he had sent,” he says. “Again, we came up with nothing.”

Oswald says he then searched to see what he could find on the woman’s computer, even though she told him she had deleted all the emails because they were so upsetting.

“Not only did we find the emails in question, but we discovered she had changed her email address to that of somebody else,” he says. “She had been sending herself these emails over a period of time, and once we provided that evidence, the woman was fired.”

Oswald says he wanted to know the woman’s motive and asked why she set up this bogus sexual harassment claim.

It turns out the woman just disliked her co-worker, he says.

“They shared an office pod, and she didn’t like his mannerisms and the way he spoke on the phone,” Oswald says.

This is a lesson for other companies because this woman seemed to have irrefutable evidence, but that wasn’t the case, he says.

“Changing emails is something that happens more than companies realize and people take emails as facts,” Oswald says.

He recounts the case of a man who told a prospective employer he had a university degree, even though he didn’t.

“He crafted up an email to himself purportedly from the university he said he attended and presented it to a head-hunting company who secured him a job,” Oswald says.

Once inside the company, this man changed his email address again to that of the CEO and sent messages to payroll to increase his salary and pay him bonuses on almost a monthly basis, he says.

Oswald says he sometimes undertakes experiments with companies to prove how easily fraud can be perpetrated.

“There is a whole host of ways that I, as a social engineer, can get you to accept an email from me,” he says, adding he once set out to prove to an insurance company that its computer system could be easily breached.

Oswald and his colleagues set up a beer stand outside the company and offered its employees free beer from Bavarian-dressed hosts.

He says they quickly attracted a crowd.

“Then we handed out memory sticks to the insurance company employees and told them they had a chance to win a trip to Bavaria by filling out an application,” Oswald recalls.

“We gave away about 60 of these memory sticks, and 40 people put them into their computers. We asked them to set up an account with a username and password, and we asked for some basic information.”

Oswald says because most people use the same password for multiple accounts, he could access a number of work passwords at the insurance company.

Examples such as this and fraud schemes Oswald has uncovered in his 30-year career are presented at lunch-and-learn seminars he offers.

“We give real-life examples of how easily we can hack companies,” he says.

“It’s really important that employers provide education to their employees about cybercrimes and how to prevent them. Knowledge is key.”

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