This article was first published on 23/03/18
JOHN Ford mentally rehearsed the required lines, picked up the phone, dialled the bank’s number, and waited for a voice at the other end.
It was time for his matinee performance.
Today’s role was well-worn: former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, New Labour founding father, and confirmed target of Rupert Murdoch’s flagship weekend broadsheet The Sunday Times.
“Good afternoon, can I take your name and account number please?“
Ford drew on his actor’s training and launched into his patter, delivered in a carefully observed deep Scots brogue.
The aim was to impersonate Brown in order to illegally access his private bank and mortgage details. The client was The Sunday Times’ celebrated Insight investigations team – Ford’s employers for 15 years.
He excelled in his task, breaking in – by his own admission – between 25 and 40 times, including preparatory work on Brown’s gas, electricity and water accounts.
Ford’s work led to a story that yesterday saw the paper’s then editor – and current Times editor – John Witherow accused of covering up criminality after years of denying journalistic wrongdoing.
Now, for the first time, speaking exclusively to Byline Investigations, 52-year-old Ford reveals just how The Sunday Times trampled over data protection laws to run a story about a mortgage the former prime minister had for his London flat.
“It took one or two weeks to do the Gordon Brown bank account access,” Ford explained.
“I had to go into character a lot because I was being cautious and professional. It was a big job.
“It started when I was given the address [of Brown’s flat in Westminster, the subject of the story] over the phone [by a member of the Insight team], and they asked me to find out what I could about Gordon Brown’s finances.
“They said he was corrupt; that there was a public interest in the story they wanted. So, I followed the usual protocol.”
The usual protocols in Ford’s shadowy world of journalistic dark arts involved deploying a blend of clever scripting, social engineering, persistence, and – of course – performance.
Ford went on: “First move, as always, was to run the Land Registry search, which revealed the name of the lender, which I seem to remember was Abbey National.
“Then a quick call to British Gas, where I found a direct debit, from which I recovered the full bank details on file in one or two calls, in the usual way, along with the ex-directory phone number at the flat.
“At this point, there was no need to worry about using any kind of accent, as I was just any old ‘Mr G Brown’ phoning up for details ‘on the date of my next payment’ or some such blag.”
Ford needed to collect tidbits of key information about his target in order to beat bank security questions.
He said: “Then, to provide the copper bottom, I recovered [details of] additional direct debits, from other utility accounts, such as electricity and water.
“Details of these payments can be later fed back to the bank, to convince the person on the other end of the phone, that you have intimate knowledge of ‘your own’ financial affairs.
“I was then ready to go into bank and mortgage.”
Once Ford had constructed a profile on Brown, he had enough information to go for gold.
“I went into the bank first, as I had the account number and sort code,” he said.
“Now, affecting a Highland brogue, I slowly began recovering payments into and out of the account.
“These included salary payments from Her Majesty’s Government.
“It was easy, as his mother’s maiden name was on the public record, and I had details of recent transactions from the direct debits gleaned previously from utilities.
“I then went on to identify the regular monthly payment to the mortgage provider, so I recovered the exact amount paid every month and the date.
“Crucially, I then asked for the reference number, or mortgage roll number, which was all I needed to terminate the call, and hop over to the lender’s customer service.
“Following a set blag, as usual, I rang in, again applying a Scottish accent.
“This was not really needed, as there was no special indication of status – it was just a regular, everyday mortgage account.
“It was a bit of fun, to do his accent. I was asked the usual questions – such as roll number and date-of-birth.”
“Then the name and sort code of the bank from which the funds were drawn – then I was in,” Ford continued.
“From the call that followed, I was worried that I’d still missed [getting the details of] a mortgage payment so I then got them to tell me the interest rate.
“I would then withdraw [from the blag], leave it for a short period, and ring back into the call centre, having been careful to note down the name of the person I had previously spoken to, just in case they happened to pick-up again.
“This is unlikely, as the pool of call centre staff was generally large, but it did happen from time-to-time.
“Getting a different person, I would then fill in the list of pertinent information.
“Inception date (the start date of the mortgage – in Brown’s case, 1992).
“Mortgage type – i.e. repayment or interest only.
“Arrears – none of course.
“Then the final sticky point, which might have warranted a third call in. I found out the current balance, which is never too difficult to charm out of a minimum wage person in a job where they are being paid to be helpful to customers.”
“The final question is the most awkward as it is to establish the amount advanced/loaned in the first place,” Ford explained
“Presto, it’s in your notebook and it’s then typed-up and sent over by email to the Insight office.
“When I was first tasked to target politicians, it was funny, being Gordon Brown. I always trusted that my employers were taking care of the public interest side of things; applying the right tests to their journalism before calling me up with a job.
“I didn’t think too much beyond that, at the time. I would just fire in the invoice and it was job done, trebles all round. But these days I look back on things very differently. What we did was indefensible.”