The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has reported a 17% increase in whistleblower reports in the last year.

The number of whistleblowers reporting fraud to the SFO last year rose to 150 in 2020-21 increasing from 128 in 2019-20, according to data analysed by financial consultancy firm Accuracy.

The SFO took further action on 89% of the 150 whistleblower reports it received which involved conducting further investigations, often in conjunction with HMRC, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), and regional UK police forces.

Accuracy states that the rise is likely due to the economic downturn from the Covid-19 pandemic serving as both a catalyst for fraud and uncovering existing fraud with HMRC stating that almost 9% of the furlough scheme was claimed by fraudsters or was paid in error.

Accuracy also added the rise can be attributed to the slowdown of activity during the lockdown as large numbers of legitimate transactions can make it harder to detect fraudulent ones so the slowdown may have made it easier for suspicious transactions to be spotted.

Morgan Heavener, partner at Accuracy said: ‘The jump in whistleblowing reports to the SFO suggests that fraud increases during times of economic uncertainty. We have also heard anecdotal reports that employees working remotely have been less likely to report fraud to their employers, and some of those employees may have instead made reports to government authorities like the SFO.

‘The internal controls at many companies changed during the pandemic, and the lack of ‘physical’ surveillance may have given some the false impression that their fraud would go undetected. We are increasingly seeing that this is not true.’

Although many businesses have whistleblowing procedures in place, employees can report cases of workplace misconduct to the SFO if they feel they cannot use channels provided by their company.

Last year, the SFO with help from whistleblowers fined the oilfield services provider Petrofac £47m in October 2021 for failure to prevent bribery. The group’s head of sales was sentenced to a two-year prison sentence.

Roberto Maluf, director at Accuracy said: ‘The severity of the potential charges bought forward by the SFO can have huge financial consequences, but also cause irreversible reputational damage. What one employee does can have serious implications for the entire business.’