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Lessons learned after West Suffolk Council scammed out of £52,000 but concerns remain

Lessons have been learned after a district council was scammed out of £52,000 — but concerns remain.

A report into how West Suffolk Council fell victim to mandate fraud for the first time, costing the local authority £52,000, was discussed during last night’s Performance and Audit Scrutiny Committee (PASC) meeting.

The incident, which happened in early July 2023, and was revealed in November of the same year, involved a group of scammers hacking into the email account of a council supplier and sending out a series of emails which included a change of bank details and an invoice.

Cllr Diane Hind. Picture: Joao Santos
Cllr Diane Hind. Picture: Joao Santos

Although the council caught on to the scam, it wasn’t in time to stop the transaction from going through.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Diane Hind, cabinet member for resources, said the council had learned valuable lessons on how to avoid and deal with fraudsters.

She said: “It’s a very regrettable incident and we’ve strengthened our procedures as a result, as you would expect.

Cllr Nick Clarke. Picture: Joao Santos
Cllr Nick Clarke. Picture: Joao Santos

“It’s really easy to be wise after the event, but what we have done is we’ve got more steps and processes and that should stop it from happening again.

“This is a reminder for all of us that we need to remain vigilant.”

Opposition leader and PASC member, Cllr Nick Clarke, acknowledged that the scam had now been investigated appropriately but criticised the council’s lack of initial clarity.

Also speaking after the meeting, he said: “I am now clear that the council has looked into the matter thoroughly — the council itself did not carry out the fraud, but how we learn and respond to it is hugely important.

“When things are not clear, it only raises more questions than puts to bed.”

Cllr Clarke also criticised the amount of exempt papers contained alongside the report which led to its discussion being held behind closed doors and promised to press for a culture change.

He added: “We had an awful lot of exempt papers, and I challenge that — I don’t believe a lot of papers should have been kept out of the public eye.”

Cllr Hind defended the council’s approach to the scam and said the council was as transparent as possible, with the normal procedure having been followed.

She added: “It was an ongoing investigation and we revealed as much as we could so as not to prejudice that investigation.

“We have a duty to the company to not reveal anything that might identify them — it’s a very difficult situation and it’s a crime hard to investigate and prosecute.”

The council already indicated earlier this month that staff had now been properly trained, with mandatory training set up for any incoming staff.