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How the Wirecard story unravelled: an interview with Dan McCrum who broke the truth

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I’ve been following Dan McCrum, the investigative journalist with The Financial Times, for quite a while. He’s the guy who broke the Wirecard story, even though it could have meant quite a lot of personal danger. If you haven’t read his book The Money Men, I can strongly recommend it or, if not, watch the documentary on Netflix Skandal. I’ve mentioned many of these things on my blog before but, after his whirlwind tour of the world of shady finance, I finally got a change to sit down with Dan and chat. Here’s how the discussion went ...


Wirecard and others “illustrates all the talk about anti-money laundering and cleaning up the financial system is just talk.”


Chris Skinner:

How did you begin your journey to be an investigative journalist?

Dan McCrum:

There was a period in my life when I was working in a bank as a graduate, deeply unhappy at the long hours in general, drudgery of turning up early in the morning to a bank each day. And it was just one of those discussions with friends where people were saying, if you could do any job in the world, what would you do? Without hesitation I replied, I’d be a journalist, and my friend just looked at me like I was an idiot. It’s like, you can do that. It’s not like people who want to be vets or doctors that need some kind of training or skill, they’ll let anybody be a reporter. So I set about trying to become a reporter and, twenty years later, here I am.


When did you join The Financial Times, and what is your remit?


So my first job was actually at The Investors Chronicle writing about stocks and companies, things like that. And I hopped from there over to the FT on The Lex Column, which is more focused around corporate and financial opinion than what you would generally find on the back page of the daily paper. Most people read it online these days, and I found myself suddenly with very little experience and a small amount of knowledge having to come up with three hundred or so words of cutting edge insights in a subject that I’d only just started to learn about that morning. So that was kind of my introduction to working in the media.

I had the grounding in numbers, a little bit about companies from working in the bank and the key to most journalism is you just have to find somebody who knows what they’re talking to chop down what they say. There’s no great mystery to being a reporter. It’s generally the neck of working out who has something to say on the topic and getting them to talk to you.


So I kind of know the Wirecard story. I’ve read your book The Moneymen, and I’ve watched the movie Skandal on Netflix , but I wonder where it all started.


It’s just taking a step back. It’s a little bit crazy, isn’t it? we suddenly discovered that Wirecard was being run with all these buildings and offices, where there were lots of people who were just acting at running a company and there was very little going on inside. So it’s really quite crazy, particularly when we get into what they did to try and stop that truth coming out. But the first moment was way back in the summer of 2014. I was chatting to this hedge fund manager who knew the kind of stories that we are interested in, and he just said to me: Hey Dan, would you be interested in some German gangsters? And I was like, yeah, of course. Absolutely. And it turns out he was talking about this little company called Wirecard, which was worth about €4 billion. They did something to do with payments, moving money around, and called itself the European PayPal. It then turned out that there were these two theories about it. One, that it was involved in every bit of nasty business you can imagine around online money laundering; and, the other, was accounting fraud.

There are some technical things about it, and there are aspects of company accounts that you look for that don’t quite make sense, but the best way to understand this is a tip-off by a hedge fund guy. This is because, if you spot one lie about something, then you’re probably going to find some more if you dig a bit deeper and, in the case of Wirecard, this was the case.

They had bought a whole string of businesses in Asia but, when you looked at the paperwork on the ground in those countries, the businesses seem to be a lot smaller and worse than what Wirecard was telling everyone back home in Germany.

That was the first big clue that something wasn’t right here.


It’s an amazing story. I mean, they had this stuff going on in Dubai and in Singapore and many shell companies, and then you got accused of trying to trash their reputation and even the German regulator came after you. You were threatened with jail. You must have been worried.


It was quite stressful. They did the classic thing, which is go after the messenger and, when I say the classic thing, it was pretty extreme because, by the time this is all happening, we had spent a few years investigating them. We get to the point in 2018 where I’ve got a whistleblower from inside the company who has some evidence. Their evidence is not of the whole thing, but of some frauds happening in a part of the empire.

So, I start to write stories about it and what they do is they fall back on this trick, which they had very successfully used time and time again. The trick is to say that anybody saying nasty things about them was just trying to manipulate their share price. They are evil speculators, playing into all those sort of tropes about nasty moneymen that you might imagine.

This turned out to be very effective because it created doubt in the minds of their investors and regulators, and all of the rest are saying that it is okay, but maybe there is something more to it. It’s complicated. I’m not really sure who to believe here.

What was quite incredible was that they got the German government to go along with it.

So, on the one side a respected international newspaper, The Financial Times, is publishing stories saying there’s something odd going on here that looks like fraud and, on the other side, the German government listening to the company who says, no, it is not true. They argue that Dan is a rogue journalist taking over their front page, and he’s in league with nasty speculators. The firm then claims there’s something criminal going on here and asking the regulator to go and investigate us in return.

When you’re in the middle of that, it is completely confounding. It feels like the world has gone mad. You are doing your job, publishing stories, and people read them and then they think you are a crook.


Did you reach a point where you felt like you should give up?


Well, it did get quite chilling and I felt, not that I wanted to give up, but there were moments when I felt like they were going to get away with it, because the accusations got so intense and so public that the FT felt it had no choice but to launch an internal investigation.

This old trick, which companies do all the time, of making a lot of allegations meant that the FT had to bring in an outside law firm to look at things conclusively.

Now, we knew we weren’t corrupt but, at that moment, it did feel quite dangerous because we’d started to realize that at least one of the guys involved had some very dangerous friends.


This is Jan Marsalek?


Yes, this is Jan Marsalek, the chief operating officer. After Wirecard collapsed, he was allowed to flee the country and went to Belarus. He has, for a long time, been in Moscow according to various fairly good reports and the latest we’ve heard is that he’s popped up in Dubai. This is not so surprising because Dubai is one of the few places where Russians can come and go as they please and, more importantly, spend their money and have fun.


What’s he doing in Dubai?


I don’t know the answer to that. I imagine he’s trying to make himself useful. It certainly seems that he has been working with extremely connected people in Russian intelligence for some time.


Was it all driven by Jan or what about Wirecard’s former CEO, Marcus Braun?


I think it was driven by both. Marcus Braun is the older brother dynamic. Marcus is ten years older than Jan and Jan has no close family. He is not married, has no children and is pretty estranged from his mom and sibling. So, I think there was a bit of Marcus Braun, the CEO, being like a father figure.

Marcus and Jan are both Austrian, and both worked very closely together for years. Marcus was the public face of Wirecard whilst Jan did the dirty work, behind the scenes.

Now I should mention that Marcus Braun protests his innocence. He ran this company for fifteen years or so and was its largest shareholder. He claims that he had no idea that it was an enormous fraud, and all its money didn’t exist. But that’s a story we will see play out in court.


Maybe so but, whilst Marcus is in court, Jan seems to be slipping through the fingers.


Jan is out there somewhere, but you need to know that it was very convenient for a lot of people that he disappeared. There are still these mysteries at the heart of Wirecard, in terms of how they got away with it and where has all the money gone. What were Wirecard’s connections to the various secret services, all of which seems to have gone through Mr. Marsalek. So, it does seem helpful to a bunch of people that he was allowed to leave the country and disappear.


That’s interesting. I thought everything was done and dusted. But you’re saying there’s still a whole load of questions to be closed or answered about the whole scandal?


Well, I think it’s because we still don’t know the exact mechanics of who decided what and when. I’ve got a pretty good idea of when the fraud really got going. It’s about 2010 when they ran it as a way iof solving the money laundering business, which wasn’t going as well as it had previously, so they started to fudge the numbers. But there are so many tangents and side stories to this story.

Then there’s the point where Jan Marsalek was trying to put together a militia force to control the Libyan border, and he brings in a Russian colonel to run security. You kind of would like to know a bit more about what exactly was going on there.

Then there are a whole bunch of links to Austrian intelligence, which I’m reasonably confident there are some more stories to come out about what was happening there. So yes, I still think we have more to learn about this incredible Wirecard story.


I’ve got a few more questions, Dan, but what we are describing sounds like some weird Netflix movie or Hollywood movie. I mean you must have sat there at some point and thought, this is surreal.


It just got stranger and stranger.

One of the scariest moments is we discovered that there was a whole bunch of private detectives running around, following people, trying to catch us, talking to our sources. We caught and talked to one of them, and he tells us a plan they had considered, but decided wasn’t necessary yet, was this old gangland trick where they would plant drugs in my car and then call the police, which would possibly backfire by attracting more attention to the case. But that’s the sort of thing that can blow up your life.

So, it did get a bit scary there and I think you asked me earlier, why didn’t I give up, or did I think about it, and the truth was the only way that I saw through it all was to prove that they were the bad guys. And that was quite motivating.

I had the support of the FT to do that but yeah, it did seem crazy at times. Each revelation makes you think, on the one hand, this is insane. What has happened to my life? What is going on? But then the reporter bit in my brain is going, what a story. People are not going to believe this when they hear it.


Anyway, you’ve done the book, the film and, moving on, I’ve noticed that you seem to be talking a lot about Adani, the Indian conglomerate at the moment. Is that your latest, newest investigation?


It’s one of them. We’re trying to continue to expose wrongdoing and financially interesting companies. Adani is fascinating as well because Gautam Adani, the founder, was the third richest man in the world until about a year or so ago, and it turns out his fortune was allegedly built on some pretty fragile foundations.

There are some pretty strong allegations that the whole thing was cooked up. It is alleged that he was manipulating the share prices of his various companies upwards, and we’ve written about how they made their money.

The simplest way to do it is to use one of their larger businesses that is heavily involved in coal trading. It turns out that they possibly spent about $2 billion buying coal from a guy whose office was in his garage in Taiwan, and it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of other obvious business activity going on. Oh, and this guy is a great mate of the founder of Adani going back a long time. That just looks a bit odd, doesn’t it?

And the reason why I think it matters, beyond what the share price is doing, is what’s going on with this company. For example, Adani is very close to the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and we have an election coming up in just a month or two in which it looks like he’s on course for yet another victory, and suddenly some people would say democracy is on the ballot in India this time. When you are tracing these links, it is never just about the company, is it? You start off there and you find all sorts of other things going on. So I mean that’s definitely an interesting one to watch at the moment.


I’ve been reading some of your reporting, and your colleagues, about what’s going on and that Modi seems to be embroiled in an affair that’s so scandalous with Adani, creating a business that is potentially fraudulent and run as a shell company with lots of hidden movements behind it. A lot of this I think came from Hindenburg, didn’t it?


So the short seller Hindenburg research put out a big report at the start of 2023 outlining that it thought Adani was possibly a fraud, and had manipulated the share price upwards. We joined in around August 2023 with some follow-up reporting, which fleshed out a lot of that and showed some of the money trails.

This exposed the way in which the secrecy jurisdictions, such as Mauritius, are used to ill ends, shall we say, by people with lots of money to move around who want to do it in secret. And what we were able to do, thanks to some whistleblowers, was trace this flow of money which went everywhere from India to Mauritius and then over to Bermuda, back to Mauritius again and on to Switzerland, and then finally back into India.

The Indian regulators had supposedly been investigating this for some time and had  thrown up their hands and said: these foreign jurisdictions just won’t give us the answers, so we don’t know. That’s where we came in and said: well, here you go, you can actually see it here in the paperwork.

It illustrates all the talk about anti-money laundering and cleaning up the financial system is just talk. The fact is that there are some basic fundamental blocks to doing this. You just need to look. Equally, if you are up to no good, there are a lot of people who will facilitate that.


I’m aware our time is coming to an end, but obviously all of this discussion about investigative reporting links with things like Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and what’s been going on with him. Are you a fan or a hater?


Assange is a very complicated character, and I think one of the great problems we have is we want things to be black and white. We want to have heroes who are great.

The problem is that Julian Assange is a hero who did great things, but also turns out to be a very complicated person and not necessarily a hero in all aspects of his life but, deep down, what he and WikiLeaks did were acts of journalism.

Now this is my opinion, rather than speaking for the FT, but I see him as a reporter and the idea that he should be deported to be thrown in some American prison for exposing American war crimes, that’s a scandal and it shouldn’t happen.


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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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