Crime: Newspaper test shows big business the smart way to beat crime

Companies spend millions on security, but one of the world's biggest corporations has found a cheaper way to keep criminals at bay. Steve Boggan reports.
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The Independent Online
General Electric has saved itself millions of dollars by drawing up a hit-list of 45 words designed to weed out criminals who try to do business with it.

In a simple but ingenious method designed to avoid being cheated by ever more sophisticated crooks, America's largest company has signed up to five computer databases normally used by journalists.

Managers across the world have been told they must cross-reference a potential business partner's name with the 45 words to see whether they have featured together in newspaper articles on the databases.

If they have - in conjunction with "indict", "investigate", "crime", "fraud" or "violent", to name but a few of the words - then the company refuses to do business with them.

"We call it the newspaper test and it has proved very successful," said Jane Wexton, the company's director of global compliance. "This is not the only check we make, but it is a start.

"If someone associated with a deal appears on the database with one of our chosen 45 words, we see that as smoke, as a red flag, and we investigate further. We ask whether we would like our company's name linked with that person's on the front page of the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal. If the answer is no, then we don't get involved with them.

Speaking at the Cambridge International Symposium on Crime, Ms Wexton said the company had saved itself from serious losses by using the newspaper test. In one instance, General Electric backed away from an airport project in Argentina after finding hundreds of articles on one of the senior figures on the Argentinian side.

"I find it astonishing that some companies run no checks," added Ms Wexton, who spent six years in the New York County District Attorney's office before joining General Electric. "I recently read that the fourth largest telecom company in the US entered into a deal with four men involving its retained-value phonecards.

"The four men subsequently took that company for $94m. But a simple check on the databases we use - Lexus Nexus, Dialogue Knight Rider, Reuters, Dow Jones and the BBC - would have shown them that all the men had well- publicised links with organised crime."

The symposium, which attracts lawyers, law enforcement officers and computer experts from around the world, has been examining ways to prevent the Internet being used for criminal purposes and the huge jurisdictional problems that arise when it is.

While some speakers have been saying the electronic superhighway is the perfect route for fraud and money laundering, others believe that international co-operation among law enforcement agencies will stop the crooks.

Bill Tupman, ex-director of police studies at Exeter University, said: "The police's capacity to use information technology and to co-operate across borders means that they can anticipate what the crooks will do next."