Eagle-eyed finance staff at Hertfordshire County Council spotted an attempt to defraud the authority out of more than £1 million.

The council’s finance team reported their suspicions to the Hertfordshire Shared Anti-Fraud Service and the investigation that followed identified a number of ‘mule’ bank accounts reported to be linked to an organised crime group.

The accounts were frozen and the matter has been passed on to the relevant banking and enforcement agencies.

The investigation was highlighted to a meeting of the county council’s audit committee on Monday (December 7).

Head of the service Nick Jennings said: “We have an accredited financial investigator who works as part of our intelligence team.

“That officer recently had a case reported to her that was identified by officers. It was an attempt to defraud the authority of just over £1 million.

“As a result of officers spotting that fraud before it happened we prevented that fraud from going ahead."

At the meeting Mr Jennings highlighted the ‘business as usual’ approach by council officers to prevent fraud – stressing that ‘prevention was better than a cure’.

During his report he referred to the new and emerging fraud threats relating to the pandemic and said the service was alerting councils to various spam and phishing scams that were circulating.

He acknowledged that they had come across a number of "suspicious or potentially fraudulent" claims for grant schemes during the pandemic.

But he said the district and borough councils had done an excellent job in delivering those schemes and in ensuring fraud was prevented or reported.

The report presented to the committee outlined the service’s ongoing investigation and prevention work, which includes e-training for council staff.

According to the report, between April and October 78 allegations of fraud affecting council services were reported to the service.

The largest proportion (40) of allegations related to ‘blue badges’ – with others relating to adult care, payroll/internal or ‘other’.

And according to the data – during that time period – most referrals (60) were made by members of the public, which the report acknowledges may be as a result of the pandemic.

“Reporting by staff has reduced significantly at the council compared to previous years,” says the report.

“One reason for this may have been the response and focus on the Covid pandemic and the lack of visibility of a fraud presence in the ‘virtual’ workspace.”

As well as supporting the county council, the service also provides services for six other council ‘partners’.

As part of their wider role the report highlights ongoing work on ‘two sophisticated phishing email attacks’ against two partners.

At the meeting audit committee chair Cllr Frances Button praised the work of the service.

“Its difficult to quantify the amount of money  you save the council, because if you stop a fraud before it happens, how do you measure the benefit for us?” she said.

“I think we all know the benefit is absolutely huge – thank you for emphasising again that you work across all of our departments but also nationally.”