The Cork grifters who 'were unlucky to get caught' in sophisticated bank fraud

Two Cork solicitors were jailed today after an investigation into an elaborate years-long fraud caught up with them. But what turned two bright, qualified young people into Cork’s Bonnie and Clyde?
The Cork grifters who 'were unlucky to get caught' in sophisticated bank fraud

Former solicitors Keith Flynn and Lyndsey Clarke outside Cork District court last year. The court heard that Clarke has suffered from depression in the past, while Flynn, following his striking from the roll of solicitors, was subsequently declared bankrupt in January 2017. Photo: Cork Courts Limited

Back in 2014, Lyndsey Clarke was making her own headlines. 

Running as a Fine Gael candidate in the local elections, she knocked up a mini-newspaper called North West News, exactly the kind of tongue-in-cheek hokum we have come to associate with canvassing, featuring a photo of the solicitor in a boxing ring under the headline 'Clarke promises to come out fighting'. 

There was a Peanuts cartoon on another page in which Charlie Brown tells Snoopy he's given Clarke his first preference, and a weather forecast projecting a 'great day' as she gets elected.

It was the year she became a partner in Keith Flynn and Co Solicitors. In advance of the election, she was photographed with then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny and she told the Evening Echo that as a working mother, with an interest in family law, she could "identify with the challenges faced by so many". 

Lyndsey Clarke with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2014. Photo via Facebook
Lyndsey Clarke with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2014. Photo via Facebook

Talented, well qualified, with youth on her side - she could have been a contender. 

Off in the bottom right-hand corner of her own election pamphlet is a photo showing the unmistakable figure of Mystic Meg, with 'Today's Horoscope' declaring 'the stars predict Lyndsey Clarke to be elected'.

The stars were wrong. Instead there was a peculiar constellation that even the famed clairvoyant would have struggled to foresee: with her partner, Keith, came dozens of false identities, 80 different bank accounts, screeds of bogus documentation, disguises and wigs when visiting ATMs, a safe holding almost €100,000, and questions about how two practicing solicitors arrived at this juncture, and ultimately, jail. 

The zodiac hadn't a chance.

‘An odd pattern’ 

In September 2017, Alan Boland of Bank of Ireland's group financial crime unit noticed an odd pattern across some accounts, and began investigating. The Irish Examiner understands that among the irregularities was a spelling mistake common to documentation on six BOI accounts belonging to six different people. 

Boland checked IP data and also went back to listen to recordings of online banking calls. It turned out the spelling mistake wasn't the only similarity. In its initial report Bank of Ireland suggested there may have been a loss of some €32,000. Boland contacted the gardaí in Anglesea St in Cork City.

What investigating gardaí, led by Detective Garda Alan McCarthy, subsequently uncovered was later described in court as an "identity factory". Flynn, 46 and originally from Ballintemple in Cork City, and Clarke, 37, from Blarney St, had manufactured an extensive network of bogus identities, 60 in total, anchored around eight genuine PPS numbers they had bought from homeless people for just €100 each, leading to 80 different bank and credit union accounts. 

Those, in turn, had generated hundreds of thousands of euro in loans, resulting in a net loss to those lenders of approximately €390,000. Gardaí placed Flynn and Clarke under surveillance, believed to be something of an undertaking given Keith Flynn and Co Solicitors, formed in 2006, had two offices, one in the Capel Building in Dublin and another at George's Quay, Ballintemple in Cork. 

Clarke was renting a property on Blarney St while Flynn was renting at Altus Apartments in Sundays Well, said to offer the best view of the River Lee in the city. His old family home was back in Ballintemple. 

With a previously unblemished record and their standing as practising solicitors, gardaí were initially unsure that they were actually linked to the bogus accounts. But by summer 2018, they knew.

 Former solicitors Keith Flynn and Lyndsey Clarke had ordered some 41 driving licences from an online site called Flawless Fake IDs and had combed the internet for photographs of people who looked sufficiently like them to match with the false name and address. Photo: Cork Courts Limited
Former solicitors Keith Flynn and Lyndsey Clarke had ordered some 41 driving licences from an online site called Flawless Fake IDs and had combed the internet for photographs of people who looked sufficiently like them to match with the false name and address. Photo: Cork Courts Limited

Police entered the Altus apartment, with a warrant, on June 26, 2018, and seized laptops, scanners, phones, wigs, documents and a desktop safe. Lyndsey and Keith handed over the keys and gardaí found €92,300 in cash inside, along with 21 full Irish driving licences with different names, 19 bank cards, 16 credit union cards, as well as a few An Post receipts linking the couple to accounts. 

Digital copies of four passports were also discovered, useful for some banks who will accept digital copies to allow for the opening of an online account, although it's understood these passports - two Irish and two UK - had not been used. In any event, there were plenty of other bogus IDs already in action. Gardaí also found 31 Sim cards for mobile phones, and the obligatory shredder.

Under the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Act 2010, gardaí made contact with the financial institutions linked to the documentation they had found. Only Bank of Ireland already knew something funny was going on and had made a complaint. 

The harvesting of CCTV footage from financial institutions showed bewigged characters making withdrawals from ATMs - Clarke and Flynn in disguise. 

It's understood gardaí admit that, had they been trying to identify the perpetrators from the camera shots alone, they wouldn't have had a hope of doing so - it was only possible to make the links with Clarke and Flynn because of the information they already had in their possession.

This wasn't a rinky-dink operation, and the methods used were borderline ingenious. The modus operandi was simple: open a bank or credit union account and then apply for a relatively modest loan, typically in the order of €10,000 to €12,000. The account would be drained, or very little cash left in it, and one or maybe two direct debit repayments would be made. 

But then when the next direct debit was missed, the account would be shunted towards the bad debt department. There was nothing to indicate anything fraudulent. By the time gardaí spoke to some credit unions about the loans, the institutions had simply closed off the accounts as bad debts.

The finer detail employed by Flynn and Clarke is mindboggling, the diligence shown in pursuit of money almost - almost - admirable. All the accounts they opened and the loans they applied for in Cork and in the capital were under fake names. 

The only genuine aspect was the PPS numbers, acquired from rough sleepers in both cities, but everything else was a lie. 

Fake payslips of a supremely high standard were produced, with the would-be places of employment always in the catchment area of the financial institution, and especially so when it came to the credit unions. One PPS number was used 10 times.

Then there were the utility bills. SSE Airtricity was one heavy rotation by Flynn and Clarke and gardaí discovered 20 bills purporting to be from the energy provider. They were fake documents, 16 of which were used. 

Next: Three Ireland - 15 bills, 10 of which were used. Virgin Media - 57 bills, 31 of which were used to open accounts. Electric Ireland - 11 bills, seven used. Chill Insurance - just the two, both of which were used. Some 41 driving licences in total were identified, including the 20 in the safe. 

They had been ordered from an online site called Flawless Fake IDs and Lyndsey and Keith would comb the internet for photographs of people who looked sufficiently like them to match with the false name and address.

As for the addresses, they had another novel solution. For the purpose of a loan the applicants needed to be in the common bond area, so they identified houses that were for sale or rent, and would then call to those properties pretending to be the previous tenants and ask that the current residents call them to let them know if any post arrived for them so they could go and pick it up. 

And why not? As one person familiar with the case said: "They are very plausible, very genuine - they present very well." 

When things became more profitable, the couple would rent an address, pay one month's rent and the deposit, hit the credit unions and banks for loans, and then leave the property.

The cost to the lenders was severe: With Bank of Ireland the couple had €109,000 worth of loans approved, but some were not released. The bank's total loss was €49,000. 

With AIB, loans totalling €180,000 had been granted to 16 of the named aliases, leading to a €154,000 loss. At Ulster Bank, four accounts were opened and eight loans worth €35,000 granted - all bar €4,000 was lost to the lender. The accumulated losses for different credit unions amounted to €156,000. 

In addition, five PTSB accounts had been opened but no loans taken out, and it was a similar situation with KBC, where the couple had six accounts but no loans.

One person familiar with the investigation said: "I don't think they would have given up. They had a good system going, they knew what they were doing. It was like they were running an office.

"I would say they never expected to get caught. And to be honest, they were unlucky to get caught."

Legal eagles 

Before the fake names and long-haired wigs, by some accounts Keith Flynn was already a man of many faces. One person who grew up near his family home at Barringtons Avenue in Ballintemple can't say enough good things about Keith's family. 

But Keith? "He was always strange. He was just very, very odd, quiet, never said a word." Some more choice terms were also used. Before he began his relationship with Lyndsey, Keith lived very close to where he had grown up. 

It was an area where "everyone knows everyone else's second name" - and that's why Keith's standoffishness seemed so out of place. Schooled at St Francis Capuchin College, Keith later qualified with a BA in Law at the University of London - coincidently, the same college where Lyndsey studied some years later. 

He left college in 1998 but according to his LinkedIn profile didn't enter his traineeship with a firm in Cork until 2004. He also worked as a chef for a time, although according to some he viewed it as 'grunt work'. 

In 2006 he established Keith Flynn and Co as a general legal practice, and in 2012, ADR Ireland, although little or no trace of this entity seems to now exist. His work as a solicitor appears to have progressed serenely for a time, but some warning signs were there. 

Another person familiar with Keith said: "There are very much two sides to him. 

He's arrogant, he thinks he's smarter than everyone... 

"He would have been always looking for something else and was never content with what he had. He always thought he could be better."

Keith was clean-shaven and well dressed, with old photos showing a slight resemblance to actor Michael Sheen. He was not the "homeless Jesus", as described by one past contact, seen in more recent photos taken outside court. 

Sociable, someone who was a little restless; in the words of one person who knew him back then, he was someone who was "colouring outside of the lines".

It's understood Lyndsey began working with Keith in 2012 and became a partner in the firm just two years later. Originally from Blarney St, she is the daughter of noted poet and songwriter Mary Buckley Clarke, while her father, Terrance, was originally from London. 

Mary was also a nurse and Terrance would have been a prominent campaigner some decades ago for the children's unit in Cork University Hospital. Lyndsey was an only child.

Her LinkedIn account still carries hearty recommendations as to her legal skills, summed up in Lyndsey's own words as "buying and selling commercial and distressed properties. I have extensive experience in reciever [sic] sales including NAMA transactions, and complex residential conveyancing involving title and management company issues." 

Her tilt at election to Cork City Council in 2014 failed, securing just 239 votes in the North West ward, although this was mainly attributed to Fine Gael's less-than-stellar showing in that part of the city over the years and the fact that 13 candidates contested just four seats.

Former solicitor Lyndsey Clarke, whose mother is noted poet and songwriter Mary Buckley Clarke. 
Former solicitor Lyndsey Clarke, whose mother is noted poet and songwriter Mary Buckley Clarke. 

It was later reported that she had been considered for selection for the general election, but if this was the case it never came to pass. In 2014 she became a partner at the firm, and the Dublin office was already up and running. All seemed well.

But not all customers were happy with the service they received from Keith Flynn and Co. It seems at some stage there may have been a flirtation with offering wills via Groupon and the general approach to the needs of clients slackened considerably. 

People were drafted in on the government's JobBridge scheme, it seems, primarily, because they didn't need to be paid. One source replied when asked what Keith's main motivation was: "Money. He literally didn't want to work, [it was a case of ] whatever he could get money for, for the least amount of work."

Last autumn, the court heard that Flynn and Clarke had been suspended from practising as solicitors in December 2016 and were later struck off after the Law Society found them guilty of misconduct at a disciplinary tribunal in July 2018. The findings, published in the Law Society Gazette, are the same for both, line for line, and refer to the address of the Dublin office in the Capel Building, rather than the Cork office. 

The order, issued on October 22, 2018, outlines 10 breaches, including that they improperly and/or dishonestly caused or allowed a minimum deficit of in or around €40,302.70 on a client account in November 2016, the same month in which they ceased practice (November 21), with a deficit on the client account of up to €80,000. The Law Society also referred to them improperly and/or dishonestly causing or allowing the transfer of client moneys worth €10,085 and €16,370 to reduce a deficit in the client account in October 2016, and of transferring €29,000 of clients’ funds to the office accounts, via two separate payments, that same November. 

The Law Society said that having ceased practising Flynn and Clarke had not made all the appropriate arrangements to wind up the practice, “thereby showing disregard for the clients” and that they had failed to have any or any adequate regard for the safeguarding of client funds. Flynn and Clarke were ordered to pay the applicant’s measured costs and were struck off, by High Court order, on October 22, 2018. 

The president of the High Court, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, described the practice as "chaotic". David Irwin, of the Law Society’s regulation department, gave a sworn statement in which he said there had been “lapses in standards of integrity, probity and trustworthiness” and “multiple instances, over several files, of such lapses”. 

News reports at the time outlined how due to their behaviour, claims on the Law Society's compensation fund had resulted in payouts of €231,999, of which €133,000 had been recovered - a net shortfall of €99,000. It was monopoly money, and a double loss of income. 

By now they were very much a couple, having both broken from their respective spouses. They were also used to an extravagant lifestyle, and loved driving motorbikes across the deserts of Morocco and holidaying in Croatia.

"They had buckets of money," says one person familiar with this period, "staying in the nicest hotels - the practice had just gone down the tubes."

Given that the disciplinary proceedings were underway well in advance of Bank of Ireland's initial probe into the six fake financial accounts, it prompts the question as to whether the sins committed by the pair against their profession could - with hindsight - be seen as a warning as to what was to come. It's understood investigating gardaí did not receive any communication from the Law Society in relation to Clarke and Flynn and in response to questions from the Irish Examiner, the Society said it would not discuss individual cases but did stress that its Money-Laundering Reporting Committee "fulfils the Society’s obligations with regard to mandatory statutory reporting requirements relating to the offences of money-laundering, terrorist financing and relevant offences."

Referring to the most recent 2019/20 report, a spokesperson said the Law Society is required to report any suspicions of money-laundering or an offence of financing terrorism that has been committed by a practising solicitor to the relevant authorities, namely An Garda Síochána and the Revenue Commissioners.

"These suspicious transaction reports are made pursuant to the provisions of section 63 of the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Acts 2010-2018," the spokesperson said, adding that in the year covered by the most recent report, the committee had directed that six such reports be made.

The Law Society also referred to the provisions of section 19 of the Criminal Justice Act 2011, that require it to report to An Garda Síochána, "as soon as practicable, information in its possession that might be of material assistance in preventing the commission of a relevant offence or securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of a person for a relevant offence". This includes fraud and in the most recent year covered by an annual report the committee had directed that 10 reports be made.

Regardless, by the time Keith and Lyndsey had been struck off the roll, the new and nefarious income stream was dragging in huge sums. "This was not a hare-brained idea they just started because of a lack of income," one former contact of Keith's said. "I would say this was ongoing."

Sophisticated fraud 

The diligent work of Alan Boland of BOI’s group financial crime unit was praised in court by gardaí. He was the man who spotted a pattern in a number of the accounts, listened back to voice recordings and checked computer data, but his actions raise the question as to whether other financial institutions were being similarly vigilant and also highlight the lack of information-sharing between lenders when it comes to fraudsters.

A Bank of Ireland staffer who spoke with the Irish Examiner about the case praised the "good old-fashioned legwork" of Boland in first detecting the fraud, and added that it showed that account monitoring and crosschecking did produce results. "This was very sophisticated - the standards of the documentation in this was very good," he said. "Any fraud case that gets uncovered becomes the learning for the next fraud case."

But he also pointed out that the sector has been attempting to secure a shared fraud database for some time, and that data protection issues appear to be a stumbling block. 

He said that in the UK, where BOI also conducts business, such a database is in place “and works very well”, with other banks having ready access to any red flag issues about particular accounts or transactions. “Yes, it potentially would have stopped some of this fraud,” he said, referring to the Flynn and Clarke case and the prospect of a database here.

Last December, the Chief Executive of Bank of Ireland, Francesca McDonagh, made the case for a shared fraud database in an opinion piece published in the Irish Times, claiming that while the lenders worked closely with police and brought evidence to court, more collaboration was required between industry, Government and law enforcement.

“I believe we should be able to share real-time information between financial institutions on fraud,” Ms McDonagh said. "Right now, we don’t have a legal framework to share this information. This means fraudsters can and do move from one financial institution to another as part of an ongoing campaign of criminality.” 

For its part, the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland said the establishment of a Shared Fraud Database is “a priority issue”, stating it would be “an essential tool in the fight against fraud for our member banks”.

A spokesperson for the BPFI said: “This initiative would allow for earlier detection and sharing of specific details associated with an activity or transaction that is suspected of being fraudulent. Many fraudsters will attempt identical frauds against multiple banks. The ability for the banks to alert each other to these attempts would greatly enhance the early detection of these multiple attempts.” 

Some work on this is already underway. According to the Department of Justice: "The Banking Sector has been in discussions with the ODPC [Office of the Data Protection Commissioner] about the data protection implications of a proposed shared fraud database. If the proposal is to go ahead, it would require some form of legislation and the Department of Justice has had preliminary discussions with the sector and the ODPC in that respect."

It’s clear that introducing a database wouldn’t be straightforward. In addition to data protection considerations - the security of data, who it is shared with and how it would be transferred - there are concerns over proportionality. 

One person familiar with the discussion to this point said there would need to be a solid case made for such a database not being a “hammer to crack a nut”. And even though certain customer data, such as credit ratings, are already shared, the potential risks of people being ‘profiled’ or unfairly labelled as a fraud risk, need to be addressed.

It’s not dissimilar to questions about the use of PPS numbers in this case. It does seem jarring that someone can acquire real PPS numbers and then use them on multiple occasions with numerous lenders without anyone twigging that something was amiss. But the Data Protection Commissioner is already in litigation with DEASP over the much-maligned Public Services Card, something that would have featured a name, photograph and PPS number. 

It is clearly not the answer - so is there one? The Department of Social Protection wouldn't comment on the Flynn/Clarke case but said it issues PPS numbers to people once their identity has been authenticated. A spokesperson said: "The Central Bank of Ireland is responsible for the regulation of banking activities, including the establishment and verification of identity by whatever means, and any questions regarding those regulations should be addressed to the Central Bank."

Maybe it’s up to individual banks and lending institutions to be more rigorous in their checks on potential customers. Then again, as recent history tells us, sometimes the banks don’t help themselves. In court last October, Judge Seán Ó’Donnabháin was scathing about AIB and queried whether any money recovered and owed to it shouldn’t instead be given to charity.

“AIB never missed it,” the judge said. "We might give the AIB money to charity. They didn’t know what they gave out, they didn’t miss it."

Warming to the theme, he added: 

We the people of Ireland have no reason to believe the AIB will ever cop themselves on because we will bail them out. History speaks for itself. 

The banking source admitted that there was potentially a point in all this when Keith and Lyndsey "could have cut and run". Someone familiar with the investigation said "their professional background definitely helped them", while a former acquaintance of Keith's mused that if he had put as much effort into his work as a solicitor as he has into creating and operating fake identities, he would have been just as rich.

As it is, with the chances of recovery of any outstanding cash slim to none, the banks will simply have to chalk off the losses, while Keith and Lyndsey's wild ride is over.

Where did all the money go?

One person familiar with the case said: "The ultimate aim for them was to be mortgage-free and debt-free." They mused that there was the potential to use some of the bogus identities to boost what would have been a fictional credit rating. One person suggested Keith had in the past scoped out hefty life insurance policies.

Keith's rent in Altus was considerable and Lyndsey was also renting, plus there were significant outgoings. Some wonder whether simply maintaining a lifestyle could have accounted for the almost €300,000 which was the missing balance between the loans received and the cash found in the safe. 

A person who knew Keith years ago said: "There is no way they had €100,000 in a safe and no contingency and no back-up - there is just no way."

There has been speculation about money overseas, with the Cayman Islands and Luxemburg mentioned, or money in bitcoin, but then again, that's speculation. A source familiar with the investigation said there was no trace of money in other jurisdictions. 

And if there was, where do you start looking? Whose name would be on the account? "Where do you stop looking?" he asked. "You have to draw a line under it."

Once the full extent of the comprehensive garda investigation was laid bare, both Keith and Lyndsey cooperated and duly pleaded guilty to charges last autumn. The court was told that while they had robbed from banks, they saved the State an enormous amount of money by entering a plea and avoiding a trial.

 Former solicitors Keith Flynn and Lyndsey Clarke who had bought PPS numbers from homeless people for just €100 each, leading to 80 different bank and credit union accounts. Photo: Cork Courts Limited
Former solicitors Keith Flynn and Lyndsey Clarke who had bought PPS numbers from homeless people for just €100 each, leading to 80 different bank and credit union accounts. Photo: Cork Courts Limited

Under that now-ageing Facebook post featuring Lyndsey’s election literature, one wag has commented: “Part of the Blueshirt Bonnie and Clyde”. But while the scale and design of the criminal activity is almost comical, it’s unlikely that the fallout is a laughing matter.

Since the garda investigation began, Keith and Lyndsey have got married. While they were living in Killarney for a time Keith was back cheffing. Lyndsey's mother, Mary, passed away last April. 

The court heard last year that Lyndsey has suffered from depression in the past. It was also told that Flynn, following his striking from the roll of solicitors, was subsequently declared bankrupt in January 2017.

Just how did the stars align so that two solicitors from upstanding families ended up here? On her Facebook page, Lyndsey has a post featuring a picture of Amanda Gorman, the young poet who snapped the world to attention during Joe Biden's Presidential inauguration. 

"There is always light, if only you're brave enough to see it," it says. "If only we're brave enough to be it."

Lines of hope, for sure. But closer to home, a few lines written by Lyndsey's mother, from the 2005 poem Poppies and Dandelion Heads, feel strangely apposite.

"A boy and girl, pick a seeding dandelion.
I hear him tell her 'Count the hours'.
She puckers baby lips, laughs then blows.
'Start again', he shouts on losing track.
But no amount of wishes, can turn the moment back."

*Additional reporting by Liam Heylin

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