Detecting deception | Angelo Gafa

The role of the Economic Crimes Unit, formerly known as the anti-fraud squad within the Malta Police Force, is to prevent, detect, and investigate economic crimes, primarily fraud. MaltaToday speaks to one of the unit’s seven dedicated inspectors, Angelo Gafa, on what actually constitutes fraud.

Inspector Angelo Gafa
Inspector Angelo Gafa

Inspector Angelo Gafa holds the Criminal Code beside him, constantly making references to it just like a priest refers to his gospel. The 33-year-old sport enthusiast, who had joined the force through the Graduate Recruitment Scheme, has been forming part of the Economic Crimes Unit for eight years and has dealt with many sensitive cases involving high-profile individuals.

In light of the allegations levelled against him by subjects he investigated, I ask Gafa why the mud always seems to end up in his court, mainly referring to the allegations of names dropping in a particular match-fixing case “in order to induce admissions” into bribery charges.

It’s clear that Gafa feels uncomfortable answering the question, preferring to sway away from the subject since “some cases were still sub-judice”.

However, according to Gafa, most of these sensitive cases brought along with them a number of ‘pay-back’ allegations towards him, and he says that “there was a lot to lose after having personally been directly involved in their arrest and prosecution for obvious reasons”.

When asked if he wanted to clear the air on a particular individual who gave an incriminating interview to the press before the arraignment, Gafa simply quoted the Criminal Code by saying that “anyone who reviles an officer or a person entrusted by law, is liable to get arrested”.

“All I can say is that the end results of the court cases I prosecuted speak for themselves.”

Technology advancement

As the world of technology advances, so do tech-related crimes. You can be a small, one-person company at home in India and ‘sell’ to a company in Europe with nothing more than a computer.

When asked if technology has helped in the fight against fraud, Gafa said that “technology on the other hand has brought with it a number of scams as well”.

I ask Gafa whether the differences in legal systems are the global fraudsters’ best friends.

“More than the legal systems, the obstacles we face are territorial boundaries. Since we joined the EU, there has been freedom of movement, and the same goes for goods.

“Hence, while this freedom has eliminated frontiers for people with bad intentions – making it easier for them to engage in cross-border crimes – law enforcement agencies are still bound by their respective jurisdictions. At the same time, one must recognise that various agencies such as Eurojust and Interpol act as facilitators in the course of cross-border crimes.”

Which leads me to ask the inspector – what initiatives are being taken to help reduce the impact of fraud globally?

“Awareness campaigns. And not solely by the Police Corps but also through other stakeholders, including the government’s Information Technology Agency, MITA, which constantly creates awareness on the latest scams.”

Difference between theft and fraud

The difference between a thief and a fraudster is that a fraudster is creating a chimerical event to deceive you while a thief simply takes something from you when you aren’t looking.

“I would like to say that the Economic Crimes Unit used to be referred to as the Anti-Fraud Squad. “Today, we use this generic term, i.e. economic crimes, because, besides fraud, other wide-ranging economic crimes are investigated by this unit.

“Our neighbouring country, Italy, has specific law enforcement agencies like Guardia di Finanza and Carabinieri but our society is so small that our specialised Unit within the Malta Police Force fits well for the country’s exigencies.”

Dishonoured cheques

The most basic, common type of fraud is a bounced cheque, since it’s the easiest kind of fraud one can commit.

Overseas, some police agencies have a benchmark on the loss suffered, which helps them determine whether or not it would be worthwhile to begin an investigation. In Malta, we investigate all amounts, although Gafa’s unit normally deals with amounts over €2,300 (Lm1,000) roughly, while any bounced cheques of under that amount are dealt with by the district police.

“Not to underestimate the sterling work of the district police, but we are a specialised squad and our intention is to focus on the most serious of economic crime cases.”

But not every bounced cheque amounts to fraud.

Gafa explains that “the reasons for cheque bouncing may vary from a stolen cheque to an account that may have been closed, or due to insufficient funds in an account.

“The action that could be taken that relates to cheque bouncing may be civil or criminal, depending on the circumstances of the case.

“And not many people out there are aware of this.

“Established jurisprudence makes it clear that for fraud to subsist, there must be contemporaneous gain and loss. Hence, if an item has been sold to a person against the receipt of a cheque which in the end results to be dishonoured, then there is fraud.

“But where an amount of money has been owed for some time and the debtor would now issue a dishonoured cheque, the elements of fraud would not subsist as the gain and loss were not contemporaneous since the gain has been made earlier.”

Dual role

Meanwhile, Gafa explains that in Malta, police inspectors play the role of prosecutors too.

“We have a dual role: that of investigating and prosecuting. Nobody can present a case better than an investigator who does the work of a prosecutor at the same time. When presenting a case it’s far better and easier. I have personally encountered European counterparts who wish that the system in their country was like ours.

“This is not to say that such a system is not strenuous as following a whole morning prosecuting cases in Court, sometimes till late in the afternoon, the police inspector must then shift into his other role as investigating officer.”

And what challenges does he face in the fight against fraud?

Internet fraud is one of them. It’s very hard to identify who is at the other end.

“Nothwithstanding the fact that the fraudster could state he’s in Nigeria but would in fact be operating from Spain. And I mention Spain because there have been many lottery scams linked to the country.

“There has been a special emphasis where training is concerned for our people to learn how to identify fraudsters and deal with such types of investigations.

“Furthermore, our unit participates in many courses, both locally and abroad, including train the trainer courses.

“These seminars are highly essential since we share our experiences with our EU counterparts. Interacting and sharing experiences help us improve our investigative techniques.”

ACTA and copyright infringements

What is Gafa’s opinion about ACTA?

“ACTA is nothing but an endorsement of our current law. MaltaToday in fact had published a highly informative article about ACTA, featuring Antonio Ghio, who couldn’t have spelt out what ACTA meant better than he did.

“As the country’s law enforcement agency, the Malta Police Force is not so much in agreement with a particular aspect where infringement of rights of a copyright holder are concerned.

“ACTA states that “Member States may – and I emphasise may – upon an order by IT-competent authorities, have a service provider pass information of a person who has allegedly infringed the rights of a copyright holder directly to the right holder.

“As things stand, same as the procedure used with banks, when we require information regarding certain individuals, we send a formal request to the bank, in this case to service providers, to establish who the person in question is marketing counterfeit goods online through the provider’s IP address, and the same system should keep being adopted on other issues,  such as the infringement of copyright holders.”

“While on the subject of online piracy or counterfeit goods, it’s worth mentioning that we have seen a shift in such goods being sold online, contrary to the past where most counterfeit goods – including drastically discounted copies of films or music CDs, and computer software such as video games, were illegally marketed and sold in the street,” Gafa said.

Gafa added that their unit also worked hand in hand with the Cyber Crime Unit when it comes to online piracy.

Cash-control regulations

In order to decrease the chances of money laundering – although there’s a specific unit that deals with such cases which falls under the unit’s umbrella – the law stipulates that when travelling, one has to declare anything over 10,000 euros in cash. Recently, by means of a tip-off, we received information about a person who came to Malta with the intention of leaving the next day.

“We discovered that he didn’t declare the money he was carrying and was found to be in possession of €18,000. When we looked into the matter further in cooperation with our foreign counterparts – and this is where the beauty of the job steps in – we found that he had trafficked drugs in Italy, France and the Netherlands. So the hypothesis was that he had trafficked drugs in Malta and was planning to leave with the money he had made.

“But his intentions were cut short after we received a tip-off. He also claimed he was taxi driver but it turned out he had been living on social security benefits for a long time. So although our unit doesn’t deal with money laundering directly, our section still gets involved in related cases.”

Since Malta is becoming a hub for financial services, how is the department being more proactive to avoid the ever-growing economic illegal activity?

Gafa says that “we cooperate and work with our social partners, such as the Malta Financial Services Association.

“We meet with government agencies sharing the same aim: to prevent economic crime in the first place.”

But it’s not always easy to be proactive, especially when it comes to internet fraud, according to Gafa.

“If you’ve got someone in a corner of the world sitting behind a computer and duping vulnerable people, one cannot be so proactive.”


“One has to be wary of phishing, a term used which literally means fishing, but over the net, where one tries to get you to divulge private data in order to defraud you. In fact, a case in point is the Microsoft scam which recently hit Malta by storm.”

Credit card fraud

Internet fraud is huge. But credit card fraud is also big.

Gafa refers to the term credit card fraud as any fraud committed through credit cards, including skimmed cards, a term used for copied cards. This term derives from the name of an apparatus used by fraudsters – the skimmer machine.

“The fraud begins with the compromise of data associated with the account, including the card account number or other data that would routinely and necessarily be available to a merchant during a legitimate transaction.

“The compromise can occur by many common routes and can usually be conducted without tipping off the card holder, the merchant or the issuer, at least until the account is ultimately used for fraud.

“When physically stolen, cards can be reported quickly by cardholders, but a compromised account can be hoarded by a fraudster for weeks or months before any attempt to defraud the card holder is made, making it difficult to identify the source. The cardholder may not discover fraudulent use until receiving a billing statement.”

And for this reason, Gafa warns, that “one must be wary when having his card swiped in, for instance at a restaurant. One must never leave his card swiped unattended since the card can be easily copied by means of the skimmer machine and the information can be used to purchase goods online at your expense.

“We have seen cases where fraudsters attached the skimmer apparatus to an ATM machine.”

Gafa says that “the card per se is of no value,” comparing it to the same piece of plastic one uses to gain access to a hotel room. However, the most important thing is the data found on the magnetic strip on the credit card where all the holder’s data is stored.

“Now, the next thing the fraudster needs to completely execute his mission successfully is your PIN number. The fraudster would attach the skimmer machine to the ATM to have your card copied, while also attaching a little camera on the top of the ATM which reveals your PIN number. The next thing you know…

“Credit card fraud has, however, reduced with the help of the Chip & Pin system, which has until now proved much more successful. As yet, this chip hasn’t been compromised.”

Welfare fraud

Do you come across a lot of benefit fraud?

The inspector says that “the Social Security Department has its own enforcement section but that doesn’t mean we don’t assist the department in investigations. But reports of welfare fraud made to the police are not so common.

“When we look into allegations made through anonymous letters, we are very cautious. We receive a great amount of anonymous letters which are all screened. In fact, some of the unit’s most successful cases originated from the investigation of anonymous letters we receive. However there have been cases where anonymous letters were sent to damage the reputation of others,” Gafa says.

And how do you determine between a genuine letter and one the aim of which is to damage another party?

“We determine it in our preliminary stages of our investigation.”

Gafa expresses dismay that “the unit receives a number of anonymous letters related to mayors, councillors and so on. Some may be unfounded and it’s incredible that most of these letters are sent to us a few weeks preceding the elections for obvious reasons. This is where our expertise steps in: to determine if the letter is a genuine one in the first place. Still, we take nothing for granted!”

Fake or stolen goods

On fake or stolen goods, there’s no such thing as finding heavily-discounted fashion designer-wear.

Gafa says that it’s pretty obvious that “when somebody is attempting to sell designer articles at a cheap price, it’s either that the goods are stolen or the goods are fake. We have lately started witnessing foreigners selling these types of goods in Malta”.

Congratulations to the very good work done by the Economic Crimes Unit within the Malta Police Force, especially to Inspector Gafa. I'm sure that all people of good will are seeing hope in people like you, although your work should be more supported by the law courts, in terms of conviction sentences. I'm sure that in many sectors of the Maltese society, which have not until now been in the news, there are people that when they hear the mentioning of your name, will have shivers down their spines!!!!!!!!!!!!!I just wonder why!!!!!!!!!!