Trust No One (2)

In February we reported on the extradition from Switzerland of MI6 conman Mark Acklom. On 7 August, Acklom, 46, was jailed for five years and eight months for fraud at Bristol Crown Court. Acklom had originally been charged with defrauding Carolyn Woods, 62, out of £750,000. He had initially pleaded not guilty, but just before the trial he changed his plea to guilty on the basis that he only stole £300,000. This entitled him to a ten per cent reduction in his sentence.

Acklom met Woods in January 2012. He told her that he was a Swiss banker and an MI6 agent who was frequently away on missions to Syria. He told her he was single, but in fact he is married with two children. His absences were not work for MI6 but because he was travelling to Spain to spend time with his real family. Astonishingly, he still maintains that he did once work as an agent for MI6. It may be that he had some contact with the organisation as many Britons living abroad tend to do, but according to our sources he was never any kind of agent (and certainly not an SIS intelligence officer).

He persuaded Woods to part with her entire life savings to fund his expensive habits on the grounds that he was going to marry her. When the money ran out at the end of 2012, Acklom scarpered and Woods went to the police. In 2015 she tracked him down to Spain where he was in prison following a property fraud, but it took ages for the police to arrange for an international arrest warrant and by the time they did, Acklom had gone on the run. Finally he was spotted in Zurich in 2017, arrested and extradited in February this year.

Two interesting points arise from this case. The first is the nature of the victims. In February we highlighted the fact that many of the targets of this kind of con are intelligent people from professional backgrounds. In one notable case (Freeguard) they included a solicitor, a psychologist and a company director. In this case, Ms Woods is clearly an intelligent and attractive woman, but she was suckered in with what, in retrospect, was one of the most transparent of fabrications.

What this illustrates is that intelligence and vulnerability are two complete different aspects of character. Intelligence services use this when drawing up psychological profiles of possible targets for recruitment. Just because someone is intelligent does not mean that they cannot be fooled. In fact, there is some evidence that the more educated a person is, the more likely it is that they will fall for a con because they lack the “street smarts” that someone with a more varied experience of life might have.

Perhaps there is something else as well. A Russian defector once said, when asked why he had fallen for the recruitment approach that finally lured him over, that he had been waiting all his life for something exciting to happen, for his life to mean something. When the first signs of the recruitment approach came, he actually suspected that something was wrong. But another part of him wanted to play along and see what would happen, not because of ideological reasons, but because he just wanted something to happen in his life. This is another aspect of character that intelligence services are looking for in a recruitment target.

Another interesting aspect of the case lies in the character of the con man, Acklom. His mother has said that she suspects that he is mentally ill in some way. She wonders if his difficult forceps delivery at birth fundamentally damaged his brain. There are two reasons for this. The first is that he does not seem to have empathy. He is able to carry out these cons without any feeling of remorse for the victim. The second is that – and in some ways this is an aspect of the first point – he is able to lie with complete conviction. This aspect has always been evident in his life: Acklom first came to the attention of law enforcement when he persuaded a building society to loan him the money to buy a mansion when he was aged just sixteen years old.

This aspect of Acklom’s character is of interest to intelligence services because it concerns the ability to lie and how to detect it. Lying is a vital part of the spy’s armoury. Espionage training teams have often pondered the question: can it be taught or is it an inherent ability? The answer is both. There is no doubt that practice in the various techniques of lying helps a great deal. But trainers for intelligence services have also noted something else: there are certain people who simply have an inherent ability to lie. They do not give off those, often unconscious, signals that indicate that they are lying. This is because at some level of their consciousness they actually believe what they are saying. This is sometimes referred to as “the Walter Mitty complex.” It means that all the usual methods for detecting a lie during interrogation such as baselining are of no use at all. It also makes these individuals superb confidence tricksters and spies.

It seems that the old saying really is true – and any experienced operator will tell you this: some spies are born, not made.

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