The $11.8 Million Phone Call

On August 31, Edmonton’s MacEwan University revealed it had sent payments for long-time vendor Clark Builders to a bogus bank account in Montreal. The payments, later transferred to a Hong Kong bank, totalled $11.8 million.

How does this happen and why did no one pick up the phone? 

Staff of MacEwan University’s accounts payable department received an email from Clark Builders informing them all future payments should be sent to a new bank account. According to media reports, the email was an excellent duplication of past correspondence from Clark Builders. It was certainly similar enough to engage the trust of college staff and they made the payments to the new account in good faith. The fraud came to light only when Clark Builders contacted the university about outstanding invoices.

While many experts are sharing their amazement that something like this could happen, I’m not surprised. When I first heard this story on CBC Radio, I quickly visualized the factors that could easily create this situation:

  1. Clark Builders is a long-time, highly-trusted vendor of the university. Over the years paying their invoices has become a routine task, regardless of the dollar amount.
  2. Scammers have certainly evolved – and continue to do so – in their ability to create trustworthy emails.  One way to check the efficacy of a message is choosing “Show Details” in the address section of an email message. This shows you who it was mailed by, signed by, if you received it as part of a mailing list, etc. But … how many of us check this information? Are staff trained to question email correspondence regularly? Do they know how to read these details and what to do if something looks suspicious?
  3. While it may seem obvious that a vendor’s change of bank account should be verified with a conversation, here are some possibilities of why this didn’t happen:
    • It could be that MacEwan accounts payable staff did not know who to call. Perhaps invoices and other information have always arrived by email from ‘Accounts Receivable’, not from a specific person.
    • Perhaps there’s no phone number attached to the Clark Builders accounts payable file. This is not uncommon today since we so rarely use the phone. Without a phone number staff would believe all email requests should be followed as stated, or were discouraged at the thought of finding a phone number (easily available at Clark’s website), finding the right person, etc.
    • Maybe MacEwan accounts payable staff rarely use the phone and are intimidated/uncomfortable/scared. This is VERY common today and if no phone communication training has been provided …
    • Possibly Clark Builders is not easy to reach on the phone. Perhaps they have a complicated voicemail system or, as we’ve seen in the banking industry, no voicemail at all.

Many of what I’ll call “traditional” ways of conducting business  have been discarded – or are not being taught. We want to give this some serious thought and consideration. With Artificial Intelligence quickly becoming integrated into our lives, are we still giving ourselves and others the ability to know when a personal conversation is the best choice and we do have the skills to make it happen?

As this story proves, sometimes a phone call is an absolute necessity.



2 thoughts on “The $11.8 Million Phone Call”

  1. Great story. It highlights how people nowadays are glued to the idea that email/text is somehow “better” than voice communication, to the point that people are intimidated from calling people – even friends and family.

    • So true, Mick. I think we are sometimes actually forgetting that a phone call is an option, and that it can provide a level of clarity unavailable from any other form of communication. Thanks for your comment. mj


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