Most people’s first job was babysitting, or delivering the paper, or perhaps working at a local shop. But none of those jobs really appealed to a young Tony Sales – because they weren’t lucrative enough.
Fraud, on the other hand, paid extremely well, a fact he learned at the age of 13 when he embarked on his first subscription scam. Sales would go door-to-door soliciting pledges for a charity walk, or a swim to fight cancer or a skate-a-thon, or anything else he could think of. None of these events were real, of course, and Sales pocketed the money.
“From there, it quickly escalated into credit card fraud, and from there we moved into making IDs, which means you can get into stuff like identity theft, mortgage fraud and loads and loads of different crimes you can commit just from learning the basic skills of one crime," he said.
Sales learned that he had a natural talent for this line of work. By the time he was 16, he was hiding £250,000 under his bed, and having to somehow convince his grandmother that he was “just really, really good at saving money” when she found his cash hoard.
“You don’t mean to have that much money, and like an idiot I kept it under my bed,” Sales told PYMNTS. "But you keep building it up and you have so much that spending it becomes a problem. You don’t want anyone to know how much you have.”
Eventually, however, he and his core crew of four friends found ways to spend that money – buying cars, taking exotic trips and generally living pretty well. Sales reports buying his first flat in London at the age of 17.
And business, for a long time, was good. While there is no official tally of how much Sales made off with – and he says he really hopes he never has to see that calculation – according to experts, the low-end number is £10 million and the high-end number is £30 million. His efforts were so successful that he achieved the dubious distinction of being dubbed “Britain’s greatest fraudster” by the U.K. press.
But as often happens in these stories, the good times stopped rolling when he was eventually caught. That is the part of the story one might expect.
The part where he comes back to work as director of strategic development at We Fight Fraud, a security firm dedicated to helping businesses fend off fraudsters? Less expected. But, Sales noted, it was totally logical. Because sometimes, the best way to catch a thief is with a better thief.
Man on the Run
Upon being caught, Sales' first instinct was to bolt. His wife was pregnant with their first child, and at the time, jumping bail and going on the run seemed like a completely logical plan for a man with large cash reserves and a lot of personal expertise in making fake IDs.
And he stayed on the run for six years – an experience he describes as mostly miserable and very stressful. The police stopped actively searching for him after about the first year. He was actually able to live at home with his family, albeit coming in very late and going out very early – but he lived with the constant fear that the law was on its way. Eventually, he said, he “needed to be caught,” and filled that need by intentionally walking past police officers in a gas station smelling strongly of marijuana. They questioned him, arrested him and he was finally caught and on his way to prison.
He described it as a great relief at the time.
It was not, however, what set him on the straight and narrow. That happened three months into his prison sentence, when his wife came to visit with his six-year-old son – his wife who he had neglected to tell that he was a professional criminal.
“I also didn't tell my wife or kids that we were on the run for six years; they really didn’t know," Sales noted. "When my wife decides to come and see me, she has my son, who was six or seven years old, and she’s holding his hand and I can see them coming into the prison and I see them and I see my son crying. That was the epiphany that I’m not just affecting me, I’m pushing my trauma onto them. So I knew I could never do anything like this again.”
His wife, he noted, was not happy about any of this. She did say at the time, however, that at least Sales wasn’t cheating on her, which “was a bonus somehow.”
But as he was preparing to leave prison, it occurred to him that he had a problem. Sales had a very unusual skillset with a very limited number of applications. There were, he said, basically two routes open to someone who had been running frauds since he was 13. He could either use what he knew to help, or he could use what he knew to become a hindrance again.
He decided he wanted to help.
What Fraudsters See That Others Don’t
Just because he wanted to help, however, didn’t mean anyone actually wanted his help. When Sales first emerged from prison, he knocked on a lot of doors at security companies offering up his expertise, and had a lot of doors slammed in his face. Security companies, as it turned out, were a little bit put-off at the idea of hiring a highly successful lifelong criminal.
But his fortunes started to turn around after appearing in a VICE documentary. From there, he leveraged that appearance into speaking arrangements and his current work with We Fight Fraud in helping businesses and consumers spot fraudsters where they lurk, and to really think about fraud very differently.
“I was saying stuff that no one was talking about. And what we know at We Fight Fraud is that stuff can be broken.”
No one in the security business likes that word, he told PYMNTS – but at this point in 2018, everyone in the world knows that no matter what the security system is, a fraudster can and will find a way to break it. And at least part of the reason they are so successful in doing that, Sales said, is because the people who design security systems don’t think like fraudsters.
“What tends to happens is loss prevention people really lack a criminal element. The precautions they come up with are developed through the eyes of decent, hardworking, honest people," Sales pointed out. "People who don’t like lying and other kinds of things. Criminals don’t have a code like that – all ethics go out the window they are only thinking about the money. And so they can really start spotting holes, and seeing they are everywhere if you don’t care what you have to do to exploit them.”
Criminals, he said, are made by opportunities – and they are always on the hunt for a new one. As long as there are human beings out there to hack, he said, fraudsters will always find ways to get through.
Hacking the Humans
Back in his credit card fraud days, Sales noted, he had a network of 300 employees throughout restaurants in London who were quietly scraping credit card data in a device for him, usually for around £300 a week. These people weren’t natively dishonest, he said, but they are “treated like rubbish by customers” and are making minimum wage. And that makes them pretty open to someone who is asking them to do something that is low-risk and well-paid relative to what they are already earning.
“I come in and say, all you have to do is swipe every card you get through this real quick,” Sales told PYMNTS. “The customer is never going to know it was you because there’s so much of this happening out there. You’re never going to get caught. And I’m effectively doubling their wages for the week.”
Folks are working for very little money – and that is a point one can hack.
Or, Sales noted, imagine a receptionist who knows it is her job to keep people on the street from coming into the building and using the elevators without a pass. But a smart fraudster knows to show up for a few days, talk to others in the lobby and make their face known to the receptionist.
“And now I say, 'oh dear, I seem to have left my keys upstairs, and can you just let me up real quick, I don’t want to bother my office mates,'” and she’ll let me up, because for the last few days, I’ve made my face known to her.”
You hack a human, Sales said, by tapping into their weak points, just the way you would tap into a computer. People want to be polite and helpful, he noted. When they are desperate or ill-treated, they make bad choices. Decent people, he said, feel icky about taking advantage of those kinds of things, and they don’t always factor in that criminals feel nothing about preying on any human weakness.
And, he said, no matter how many digital systems, passcodes, passwords and sophisticated technology we try to throw at a problem, there will always be a human somewhere with access, an override or a way to be tapped into that a smart scammer can find.
Tony Sales used to be a very smart scammer. And today, with We Fight Fraud, he is helping institutions and individuals spot fraudsters.
It won’t change the fact that in a previous life, Sales defrauded others out of £30 million, or that he brought his family on the run for six years without telling them about it, or that he lied to his grandmother all those years ago about all the money under the bed. But, he said, in working with We Fight Fraud, he can do better things, and use a head full of dangerous data to help protect others from being cheated.
“I’m not a bad person. But I’ve done really bad things,” he admitted. "And now, I want to help. I don’t like fraud that targets vulnerable people. I’m disgusted by data theft, half the people on this planet have had their data stolen. I want to really help people to stop being hit.”
PYMNTS would like to extend a special thanks to Jumio for connecting us with Tony for this interview. To hear more from Tony in upcoming speaking appearances, be sure to check him out at the Identity Matters Summit on Sept. 13 in London.