The Met’s 1999 Operation Oxborough suspected a Daily Mirror journalist of illegally ‘blagging’ the TV presenter three months before her murder but didn’t see the phone hacking connection
Police investigating the murder of Jill Dando concluded that a Daily Mirror journalist may have tried to obtain confidential data on the TV star by pretending to be her brother.
Detectives from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) believed the attempted “blag”, as it is known in Fleet Street circles, targeted three utility companies. Officers felt the attempts to obtain the data – potentially illegally – had been made by the journalist or a private investigator carrying out “blagging” on his behalf.
On 1 February 1999, just under three months before Dando was shot dead on her doorstep, a mystery caller phoned gas, water and electric companies, claiming to be James Dando – a non-existent sibling of the BBC Crimewatch presenter.
There may have been a more sinister motive, including phone hacking and breaking into her bank account.
Police were initially convinced that the Daily Mirror was trying to find out if Dando had moved to a new address.
But new expert evidence suggests there may have been a more sinister motive, including phone hacking and breaking into her bank account.
Not Just an Address: a Deeper Intrusion
John Ford, a former Fleet Street private investigator turned whistle-blower, believes the murder detectives in 1999 clearly thought the “blag” on Jill Dando’s utilities was a serious matter, and suspected it was an attempt to confirm her new address.
“However, at that time,” he told Byline Times, “the police were not fully aware that newspapers were also phone hacking, illegally accessing bank accounts and pulling phone bills. Opening-up the utility accounts was the crucial second step to accessing these highly-illegal confidential data banks.”
‘The first-step was a basic electoral roll search,” he explained. Ford thinks that the police did not understand the significance of an additional land registry search, which the the Mirror reporter hinted at carrying-out. Though perfectly legal, the land register would have revealed Dando’s mortgage roll (account) number, which private investigators used to illegally unlock bank accounts.
But the other motive could be to provide information to access voice mails.
Following the utility searches – and in the run-up to her assassination – there were reports that another mystery caller had also tried to get copies of Jill Dando’s phone bills, to find out who she was calling and who was calling her.
A Timeline of the Tabloid Attack
The story starts on Saturday 30 December 1998, when Jill Dando announced her engagement to fiancé Alan Farthing, who she’d been close to for 15 months.
Two days later, on Monday 1 February, two journalists – showbiz reporters from The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail – independently started to write stories about the engagement.
One of the first tasks, that a national newspaper reporter carried-out in those days, was to make sure that they had an up-to-date current addresses for the main subjects of their inquiries.
I’m not saying that the Daily Mirror hacked Jill Dando – but it will have been possible.Former Sunday Times ‘blagger’ John Ford
Between 1320 and 1438, on 1 February, both of the Fleet Street reporters separately contacted a firm of private investigators (PIs) called Commercial and Legal Services, otherwise known as System Searches, based in Colchester, Essex.
Director Malcolm Scott had access to the Electoral Roll – via a £2-per-search credit checking service called Equifax – and confirmed to The Mirror and The Mail that Dando was registered at 29 Gowan Avenue in Fulham, West London.
The company also confirmed the address of Farthing, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, in South West London.
Around four hours later, between 1800 and 1830, The Daily Mail journalist knocked at Jill Dando’s house. Ms. Dando politely confirmed the engagement, but did not comment further.
It is not known whether the Daily Mirror journalist knocked at her address that day – but he later admitted to police that he’d been there a few times before, knowing that the engagement was imminent. No one had answered, he later told police, so The Daily Mirror journalist wrongly concluded Ms. Dando had moved out.
If he didn’t get her mobile from the utilities already, its usual to find it in the Friends and Family or most-dialled numbers”.Former Sunday Times ‘blagger’ John Ford
Then the story takes a darker twist.
Between 18:31 and 18:49, three separate calls were made to British Gas, Thames Water and London Electricity. The caller – described as a ‘Utility Stalker’ by police – told British Gas customer services, in a call logged between 18:31 and 18:33, that he was the brother of Jill Dando. He requested changes be made to the account and asked for Direct Debit information.
John Ford, who admits to carrying-out thousands of similar illegal ‘blags’ for the Sunday Times, said: “The caller, who is most probably a PI tasked by the reporter, is first of all trying to get Jill Dando’s ex-directory phone number from British Gas, and her mobile number as a bonus. Jill Dando will have given one or both to British Gas, and it was very easy to get the customer services’ people to hand it over to a an experienced blagger.”
‘I did it thousands of times for the Sunday Times – on politicians and celebrities,” John Ford told the Byline Times. “Don’t forget, if the Daily Mirror reporter hasn’t been able to get Jill Dando by knocking her door – or if he can’t be bothered going around – he may want her phone numbers, so that he can ring her for a comment.”
“Digging deeper, the blagger is asking for direct debit information, in order to get Jill Dando’s bank account number and sort code – so that he can use this later, to blag her bank account,” John Ford explained. “The bonus, is that he can use the exact date and amount of the gas direct debit, as an answer to a security question, down the line so that he can re-access her gas account, to bleed it dry of more info.”
Identity Theft to Phone Hacking
“Little bits of the jigsaw are coming together,” Ford continued, as he analysed the attacks on other utilities.
Then you can start hacking Jill Dando and all her friends” Ford concluded.
Ten minutes after calling British Gas, the same man also called Thames Water – again telling the call centre that he was Dando’s brother, and that he was now was living at the Gowan Avenue address with Jill Dando.
John Ford said: “Don’t forget, that having got some extra details from British Gas a few minutes earlier – such as a sort code or ex-Directory number – he can use these to strengthen the identity theft and make the blag more plausible.”
Four minutes later, at 1849, the fake brother called London Electricity and asked to change details on the account, and for the account to be put under his name.
“Again, he’s changing the name, so he can get control of the account, so that he can go back in later, ” Ford said. “Once the PI has got Dando’s ex-Directory, he can then go onto British Telecom and blag the billing data, such as Friends and Family. If he didn’t get her mobile from the utilities already, its usual to find it in the Friends and Family or most-dialled numbers”.
‘Then you can start hacking Jill Dando and all her friends,” Ford concluded. “I’m not saying that the Daily Mirror hacked Jill Dando – but it will have been possible.”
In 1999, The Daily Mirror – then edited by Piers Morgan – had not been accused of phone hacking and unlawful information gathering. But since then, the paper has admitted to widespread phone hacking, and paid out nearly £80 million in compensation and legal fees.
See Part Two of our Series ‘Blagged to Death’ on how phone hacking was the most likely means by which her killed tracked her down A PHONE HACKING HIT? How Jill Dando was Tracked to her Doorstep