Birbal Trap

The wisdom and strategy applied by the legendary Birbal can be effective in fraud detection even today

The legendary Birbal could guess what a thief had in mind and plan a situation so as to trap him. One of the most useful Birbal anecdotes is the one in which he had to identity from among four servants the one who had stolen the queen’s jewels. He proivided each of the servants with a straw. They were told these were ‘magic straws’ -the one held by the guilty person would grow an inch longer the next day. Terrified, the servant who’d stolen the jewels cut the straw by an inch to avoid getting caught. And that was precisely what gave him away -his was the onlv straw that ended up an inch shorter.

In modern-day fraud detection, this is a pretty effective strategy. As in the case of a charitable trust that was set up to assist the poor, provide medical relief and work for other noble causes. It had amassed tremendous goodwill during the last 50 years and consequently attracted substantial donations. Crores of rupees were collected through donation boxes kept at department stores, airports, shops and supermarkets. The boxes were retrieved twice a week and opened at the trust’s office. This process continued till the managing trustee received some disturbing reports and anonymous complaints. The auditors too reported that the collection procedure was weak. Tampering of boxes and pilferage of some part of the collections was suspected. The managing trustee was referred to a fraud examiner who studied the trends and the collection system. He concluded that someone at a very senior level of the management, perhaps even one of the main trustees, was likely to be involved in the cash collection fraud.

The fraud examiner suggested laying a trap that would at least deter the perpetrator, even if it did not reveal his identity. Accordingly, it was announced in a trustees’ meeting, that the fraud examiner would test the collection system. He would arrange to drop Rs.500 notes marked with a red cross in one corner, in all the cash collection boxes at the various locations during the following week. If the Rs. 500 note was missing in any of the cash collection boxes, the tampered box would automatically identify the cashier involved. The trustees agreed and the fraud examiner was asked to go ahead. A week later the fraud examiner sent word that the Rs. 500 notes had been dropped in the cash boxes at all locations and the boxes could now be opened and checked. Amazingly, of all the cash boxes only one had the Rs. 500 note with a red cross in the corner. Did it mean that all the other collection boxes were tampered with? Not quite. The cash box where the Rs. 500 note was found was where pilferage was now confirmed. The fraud examiner announced, Birbal like, that instead of Rs. 500 notes in each cash box, he had actually dropped a foreign currency note of £20 with a small red dot in one each corner. The only cash box which did not have such a £20 notes was the one where the Rs. 500 note was found. Which meant that the collection cashier for that particular cash box, had emptied a part of the proceeds, retained the £20 note and inserted a Rs. 500 note with a red cross on one of its corners to proclaim his innocence. The fingerprints on the Rs. 500 note with the red cross matched those of the cashier and the store manager where the box was kept and the duo were turned over to the police for further questioning. The store manager turned out to be a relative of one of the trustees, and an estimated Rs2.5 crore had been removed from such cash boxes. The cashier confessed that the involved trustee had provided him With a duplicate set of keys and, with the store manager’s help, a part of the box had been emptied before it was taken to the trust‘s office. The instructions were to cream the large value notes and foreign currencies and leave behind the smaller denominations.

Of course, what the conspirators hadn’t bargained for was a Birbal-style trap. Apparently, ancient methods can prove to be an effective means to catch culprits, and also a moral check that could reduce the probability of fraud in these nefarious times.

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