British man jailed after selling millions of fake bomb detectors to Iraqis

The Takeaway

British businessman James McCormick made millions of dollars selling of fake "bomb-detectors" to the government in Iraq, as well as several other goverments around the globe.

The gadget he sold was based on a fake golf-ball finder and is actually entirely unable to detect bombs — or anything else for that matter.

That detail didn't stop McCormick.

He managed to sell his devices to the Iraqi government for more than $38 million dollars. The story was brought to the attention of law enforcement when a whistle-blower came forward.

Adam Higgenbotham, Bloomberg Businessweek reporter, revealed the story of McCormick's rise and fall in the latest issue of the magazine. As far as the police could tell, he said, McCormick began hatching his scheme as far back as the 1990s.

"But (he) really got involved with it just before Sept. 11, so just before the War on Terror really got going," he said. "But he spent a few years selling the devices he had in ones and twos, places around the world where procurement processes weren't that rigorous and where governments were pretty weak."

Places like Mexico, Guatemala and Uzbekistan, Higgenbotham said. But he eventually turned to Iraq in 2006 — and that was his big break, and his ultimate undoing.

"The bulk of his sales went to Iraq," Higgenbotham said.

Of the 7,000 devices he sold around the world, fully 6,000 went to Iraq. The devices were sold to the Iraqi military and police.

Ultimately, however, it was revealed that fully 75 percent of what he earned was spent on paying kickbacks and bribes in order to get his devices into the hands of the government, Higgenbotham added.

"It would be nice to think people fell for him because he was some kind of Donald Trump-style force in the boardroom or in meetings," Higgenbotham said. "In actual fact, he seems to be not particularly articulate and not particularly smart."

But he had the right contact. And he handed out all of those bribes.

The device wasn't even especially high-tech. In fact, the whole thing was based on a novelty golfball finder sold in the mid 90s. It's a plastic box, with a plastic handle and a telescoping car antenna attached to the front of it.

"You hold it out in front of you and the car antenna waves back and forth, side to side, and the direction it points in is the direction of you quarry," Higgenbotham explained. "There are no electronics in it at all. They proudly proclaim it requires no batteries, but operates purely on the static electricity generated by the human body."

In actuality, it merely moves based on the movements, sometimes imperceptible, of the human body. Essentially, it's a diving rod. Or perhaps a ouija board.

Higgenbotham said the whole device feels like it was manufactured by Fisher-Price, the children's toy manufacturer.

But the consequences of the device's limitations were quite real. Several individual were victims of bombs the fake devices never detected. One victim told the BBC about how a bomb blast completely destroyed her life.

"I lost the baby and my husband divorced me," she told the BBC.

For his part, McCormick has been unrepentant, insisting to the very end that the devices worked. He's now serving 10 years in prison.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.