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ITIC’s Andrew Jamieson and Melanie Thomas explain why a little knowledge can help prevent fraud
Fraudsters use brokers, agents and ship managers as a vehicle for crime. The result leaves them exposed to a liability as a result of somebody else’s dishonesty. As long-standing insurer of brokers, agents and managers, over the years ITIC has built up a solid archive of such cases. Acts of fraud can be varied, and our experience has shown that fraudsters will often seek to “respectabilise” themselves by associating their actions with reputable companies. It is therefore important that brokers, agents and managers are aware of the ways in which the broking chain, and parties who assist Operators in the day to day running of a vessel, can be manipulated to assist fraudulent transactions.
By way of an example, in April ITIC became aware of a scam which resulted in pre-funded port costs being diverted to a fake bank account. In each case the Owner due to make the payment received an email advising that the agent’s bank account was inoperable because of their annual audit. The message was sent using an email address very similar to the agent’s address. Details of a different bank account were provided for payment. Owners unfortunately sent money to the new account. By the time the agent reported that the pro-forma disbursement account has not been paid, the fraudsters had stolen the money.
In retrospect it may appear that a few simple checks would have been sufficient to prevent these losses occurring; the email address used by the fraudster may be very similar to the genuine one, but it will not be identical. This may lead to criticism of the victim, but taken in the context of the varied and often time-sensitive daily activities of a busy shipping professional, it is not difficult to see why the potentially fraudulent nature of the request was not detected.
Another claim reported to ITIC involved payments made by a ship manager to a parts supplier. Again, a fraudster was able to insert an email into the exchanges providing new bank details for the payment. Cases such as this are difficult to resolve. In that example, the chandler did not receive his money. The ship manager had already made the payment to the fraudster’s bank account and he understandably didn’t want to pay again. Despite the fact that both parties were innocent, neither can get what they want. The issue of who is liable can be quite complicated to work out – whose system was broken into by hackers is not as simple as whose house was burgled. In addition there are the commercial realities; the ship manager may avoid paying twice for these goods, but he is unlikely to be able to secure further supplies from that source. That may or may not be a problem.
“Cash to Master” and hire payments are also often attractive targets for fraudsters. In a welcome contrast to the previous examples, a Norwegian shipbroker managed to avoid an attempt to steal a monthly hire payment by questioning a request to forward the hire to an account with revised payment details. He telephoned to check the details with the Owner’s accounts department, who advised by return that they were not correct. Whilst we appreciate that a large number of payments are processed by brokers and agents, changes to account details should always be treated with suspicion. There are very few legitimate changes to account details.
The check should be made with a separate contact at the payee. Unfortunately, in contrast to the above, one ship manager’s member of staff was suspicious of a message asking if the money could be sent directly to the agent’s foreign exchange broker who could secure banknotes which were in short supply in that part of the world. The manager’s member of staff queried the instruction, replying “As we don’t know broker, would it be possible to remit CTM to your bank account as usual?” Of course they received confirmation of the new arrangement from the same e-mail address. The advice is to take separate steps to verify the instructions. Don’t use the reply button!
Act of fraud committed against ship brokers, agents and managers are sometimes more complex than the simple manipulation of payment details. Bills of lading are often used as a vehicle for fraud. Over the years ITIC has defended many ship agents as a result of their incorrect release of cargo against a counterfeit bill of lading. The wrongful release will lead to a liability for the Carrier. The test to determine the liability of the agent to indemnify the Carrier will be if, looking at the quality of the counterfeit bill, it was reasonable for them to have treated it as the real bill of lading. Like fraudulent telexs, a thorough examination will reveal differences. The standard of forgery can be very high. In one matter the ITIC Claims Handler mixed up the genuine and counterfeit Bill on his desk, and was unable to tell the difference between the two.
It is one thing to be taken in by a copy of a Bill of lading but quite another to agree to manipulate its contents. All information on the bill of lading must be correct, and generally, the insertion of information which is known to the requesting party to be incorrect is to obtain payment fraudulently under the terms of a letter of credit.
ITIC has come across instances where cargo interests have asked their nominated agents to backdate the date of issue of the Bill of lading. Many commodities are traded on the basis of the shipment occurring prior to a certain date. Agents are often placed under considerable commercial pressure and the shipper may try to legitimise their actions by suggesting it is practice of the trade. Misdating a bill of lading is fraud for which the agent will be liable to any party who has relied on the truth of what is said in the bill of lading. It is easy to go online and check the sailing dates of vessels. It is therefore easy to detect the misdating of Bills of lading.
Documents authorising the release of the cargo without production of the bill of lading can also be forged. In one case a liner agent was requested by the receiver of 12 containers of frozen meat shipped from Denmark to deliver them without original bills of lading. The carrier's bills of lading were consigned "to order" of the Danish shipper, and the receiver produced a fax from the shipper which appeared to confirm that he was the owner of the cargo. In the same fax the ‘shipper’ authorised delivery without the original bills of lading. The fax bore the shipper's logo, a transmission record on the top, and appeared to be signed by the same person who had signed the invoices. In view of the perishable nature of the cargo and the contents of the fax, the ship agent released the containers to the receiver.
However, the fax was found to have been forged by a former employee of the Danish shipper and the receiver subsequently failed to pay for the meat. The carrier was held liable for the shipper's loss and in turn claimed US$400,000 from his agent. Agents must take their authority to release cargo without Bills of lading only from their Principals. If a letter is produced which purports to provide an authority to release without original Bills of lading, the agent should send the letter to his Principal. This will provide him with the opportunity to check with the shipper (or bank) to ensure that the letter is genuine.
Where the Principal has agreed to release cargo against a letter of indemnity ship agents should be aware of the potential for fraud. ITIC has seen cases where agents have accepted letters of indemnity where the bank signature has been forged. Care should be taken to make sure that the receiver is presenting a letter of indemnity that covers all the cargo. ITIC paid a claim arising because a Hong Kong ship agent failed to spot that the letter of indemnity only covered half the cargo.
The above frauds all attempted to obtain money or goods by misrepresentation. Unfortunately ship agents can be the target of unscrupulous migrant smugglers who are looking to move illegal immigrants around the world. To give the impression of legitimacy to the transport of migrants, they are treated as if they were part of the Ship’s normal crew by the smugglers. Over the years the basic pattern which has emerged is that the agents are asked to attend the vessel’s call at a port and provide assistance with a crew change. Although the approach is bogus, the agent provides cover for the arrival of the migrants in the country when the ship docks. The migrants subsequently disappear on embarkation, leaving the agents with unpaid hotel bills and liabilities for fines and penalties which are imposed by the immigration authorities. In addition, should the migrants be caught, the agents can also be liable for detention and repatriation costs.
A re-emergence of this particular type of scam was seen in 2013, when we reminded all agents of their need to be vigilant when approached by Owners or Crew Managers that they do not know who are requesting assistance with a crew change. A prudent approach is often all that is needed to avoid agents becoming victim to an act of fraud; a company based in Athens contacted ship agents based in Djibouti, requesting their services for 50 - 70 fishermen joining a fish factory ship. The Member was suspicious and asked ITIC for our opinion. We duly checked records and found that the telephone numbers given were not Greek numbers and that the company did not exist. The Members declined the agency.
Unfortunately fraud will always be a problem in international shipping. Shipping professionals deal with an ever-increasing volume of messages the vast majority of which are perfectly legitimate. Although it is difficult to detect the odd bad apple knowledge of the common frauds increases the chances of avoiding becoming a victim.
This article was written by Andrew Jamieson, Claims Director of ITIC, and Melanie Thomas Account Executive at ITIC. Melanie recently became a member of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers having finished the qualifying exams in April 2014.
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