Originally published by The Daily Press.
When the FBI’s Norfolk office cracked an early case of pandemic relief fraud last spring, private sector coordinator Randy Bowling set up sessions for his colleagues to brief many of the several hundred businesses he works with.
His job is a twist on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s long effort to crack down on fraud, theft and espionage.
“Our default now is to share as much information as possible; that’s a paradigm shift for us,” Bowling said, adding that the bureau has long had a reputation of keeping what it knows close to its chest.
That’s changed, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, because national security challenges have.
“Economic espionage dominates the FBI’s counterintelligence program,” Wray has told business leaders, outlining the mission of the FBI’s 3-year-old Office of Private Sector. “More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are at your end, your ideas, your innovations, your R&D, your technology.”
As the Norfolk field office’s private sector coordinator, Bowling’s job is to offer a kind of one-stop shop for businesses to reach out to the FBI.
That means listening carefully to business concerns — “What keeps them up at night,” as Bowling put it — as well as sharing information, like the basics of that pandemic relief fraud case, in which a Norfolk man obtained $196,000 in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) funds by lying on applications for the aid.
Business and nonprofit agencies’ concerns about pandemic scams, ranging from vaccine fraud to financial games, are an FBI priority these days.
That’s on top of the FBI’s continuing focus on the security of information about businesses’ products and systems, especially in Hampton Roads, which counts more than 650 defense contractors, big and small.
Bowling’s job is to encourage information to flow both ways — the FBI shares what it knows, and businesses what they’re comfortable letting outsiders know.
“We’re not about compliance … Coca-Cola keeps its secret recipe in the vault, we’re not interested in the ingredients of Col. Sanders’ chicken,” Bowling said. “What we would like to know is where you keep your innovations, who has access, how does it move.”
The job is a lot like that of auditors who review business and government accounts and processes — the focus is on prevention by finding gaps that open the possibility of crime or error.
“You have to build trust,” Bowling said. “It’s not all about what we know — businesses are the subject matter experts about their business … some of my best moments are when I can gather corporations and you get Corporation A sharing something that could help Corporation B with some security issue.”
He works with Fortune 1000 companies participating in the FBI’s Domestic Security Alliance Council, which enables a two-way exchange of vetted information, as well as smaller firms and individuals that participate in the bureau’s Infragard information portal and academic researchers.
A key part of his job is helping businesses get in touch with FBI in-house specialists, whether on cybersecurity, fraud, counterintelligence or terrorism.
His regular exchanges with businesses’ security and information technology executives, as well as with chief executives, help the FBI learn about both new threats and the extent and mechanics of threats the bureau has already encountered.
“I really like working with Mom and Pops, someone who knows all about the special widget they’ve created but needs to know how to protect their innovation,” he said.
“It’s a lot easier to steal something than to create and innovate,” he said. “We’d much rather help out ahead of time than come in six months later to help clean up the mess.”
“One of the bullets I love to get out to our partners is, economic security is national security, and companies can be victims, too,” he said.