An NHS forensic computing unit was “invaluable” to catching an international criminal gang that conned NHS trusts out of millions of pounds.

NHS Protect’s Forensic Computing Unit (FCU) joined forces with Lincolnshire Police to deliver ‘Operation Tarlac’. The five-year long investigation saw ten people convicted for the £12 million scam.

One of the targeted trusts, Lincolnshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, had £1.28 million stolen from a new mental health rehabilitation unit fund.

In total £12 million was conned from public bodies, including NHS trusts, through forged letters, emails and faxes masquerading as a legitimate firm.

Phil Richardson, a disclosure officer on the case, said that NHS Protect proved “invaluable” in terms of time saving and financial savings. Software from the FCU allowed tens of thousands of files to be analysed rapidly and remotely.

“NHS Protect proved to be invaluable during the investigation, both in the management of the data and in a financial saving to Lincolnshire Police”, said Richardson.

“It goes without saying that if Lincolnshire Police had outsourced the imaging and data storage to a private company, the financial implications would have been huge.”

More than 50 computer devices and 200 mobile phones were seized by police during Tarlac and the FCU’s technology allowed terabytes of data to be forensically imaged and processed rapidly.

The police used NHS Protect software, Access Data Summation, allowing for more than 90,000 documents and files to be analysed.

Richardson said: “Summation allowed us to view the material from our desktop remotely here in Lincolnshire which clearly saved us time and a considerable amount money”.

A FCU spokesman said that the unitis equipped with the latest technology to allow terabytes of data to be forensically imaged and processed rapidly, enabling keyword searches to be carried out in minutes and enabling investigation teams to locate the evidence they need quickly and efficiently”.

Targeted trusts:
  • Lincolnshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust – lost £1.28 million and has recovered £22,000
  • Royal Free Hampstead Hospital – paid out £1.43 million but cash was returned
  • North Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust – lost £896,7000 with £536,966 recovered
  • Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust – paid £261,260 and no money has been recovered
  • North and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust ignored the fraudulent request
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust ignored the fraudulent request
  • Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust ignored the fraudulent request

“FCU has the capability to provide a secure remote data review service, allowing data to be presented to multiple investigators regardless of their physical location”, which was valuable as work was being carried out in both Lincolnshire and Newcastle.

The ten conspirators were sentenced at Leicester Crown Court on 26 June with up to ten years in prison.

As well as NHS trusts, councils and the Guernsey government were targeted. The Channel Island government lost £2.6 million.

Sue Frith, interim chief executive of NHS Counter Fraud Authority and managing director of NHS Protect, praised her team.

“The collaborative work NHS Protect does with other agencies is vital in tackling fraud against the health service”, said Frith, and singled out the FCU and intelligence, fraud investigation and financial investigation specialists for playing key roles.

Mike Billam, head of the Lincolnshire Police Economic Crime Unit, said that the FCU had “provided exceptional support to this investigation – an outstanding example of partnership working”.

Lincolnshire was one of the worst hit trusts, and John Brewin, chief executive of the trust, said that the mental health building was still delivered, but the money loss has prevented further development.

“This fraud has unfortunately diverted funds away from progressing potential future estate improvements and delayed some of the ambitions in our estate strategy. This has not affected the quality of care we are able to provide to patients.”

In sentencing, Judge Philip Head, described it as a “sophisticated and widespread fraud in its conception and execution” with the loss failing on the tax payer.

NHS Protect is the national body leading on work to protect NHS resources from crime, and its FCU was established in 2003.