The Model Employee Con

The LA Weekly News sums up the crime this way: 

An organized-crime ring that police believe is Russian or Armenian targeted a high-volume Redondo Beach Arco gas station, assigned a low-level soldier to infiltrate it and waited eight months while he worked himself into a position where he could implant a tiny, high-tech “skimmer” to steal customers’ credit-card information.  

Armed with a fresh batch of personal-information numbers, the gang began draining thousands of Southern California bank accounts soon after “Erick,” the model employee who was by then entrusted with opening the station every day at 5 a.m., vanished in late April along with 1,500 packs of cigarettes, $1,000, a laptop, his employee application form — and the two digital video recorders used for surveillance.  

Because the Arco is at a prime location at the bustling corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Prospect Avenue , the skimmer scam left a string of more than 1,000 victims, stretching from Santa Barbara to Newport Beach . 

The police were impressed by the organization, patience and work that went into this scam. The owner and manager of the Arco gas station had other feelings, mostly confusion, bitterness and disbelief. The question is, though, how can you prevent the same thing from happening to you? 

The fact is that Erick played his part to perfection. He was the ideal employee, but if the Arco company, or the management, had been able to look beyond the surface, they would have seen that there was something very wrong with Erick; and if they had maintained a high degree of professionalism, they could have stopped him. 

Background checks . Erick used a fake ID when he applied for the job. His driver’s license number belonged to someone else. Arco did a cursory background check on him, but not one that would have caught that discrepancy. If they had, the entire scheme would have stalled before it even started. 

Lax policies and procedures. Erick was allowed to take money from the cash register, as long as he left a signed receipt so his manager could deduct the amount from his check. It’s a nice perk and it shows just how trusted this model employee was, but really: How many companies do you know permit this sort of thing? What about the owner’s laptop? Was nothing secured in this place? It is ludicrous, and it makes you wonder if their cash handling policies were so lax, what else was? 

Odd behavior. People are people and no matter how professional an employee is, he is not a caricature. Your employees—the good, the bad and the ugly—will make personal phone calls, will generally smile when a camera is pointed at them, will accept the occasional ride home, assume they understand what is going on around them at their workplace, and they will talk about themselves. If you work with someone for 8 months and they never accept a ride, they become upset when a photographer is around, they whisper into their cell phone, they are constantly asking what you think are “dumb” questions about how things work in the business and they never talk about themselves, then you should have red flags going up all over the place. 

These three areas alone should give you an idea of how you can protect yourself and your business, but here is the rundown:

  • Make sure you do background checks that are deep enough to penetrate any false ID your applicant may be offering. This is your chance to stop trouble before it begins.
  • Beef-up your policies and procedures to make criminal activity as difficult as possible and take nothing for granted. You will never be able to make it impossible for an employee to steal, but you can make it really tough.
  • Get to know your employees and watch and listen for things that don’t seem right. If you can’t get through to someone, there is too much mystery or you have a feeling that they are hiding something, follow that instinct. 

The owner of this Arco station took the passive route to protecting himself and his business. He relied on security cameras—both of which Erick stole when he left—to do his policing for him. Workplace security is an active, not a passive, thing. The more involved you are, the more stringent your procedures, the less likely you are to see this kind of “model employee.”