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Busting Multimillion-Dollar Fraud

Alessia and her two children at their local park in Rome.
Alessia and her two children at their local park in Rome.

Even after a dozen years in the world of Cisco Brand Protection, Alessia Lombardi still enjoys putting on her investigator hat.

Like the time she helped bust open a multimillion-dollar fraud case out of a suspicious-looking warehouse in the Mediterranean. More on that later.

“You need to be switched on to do detective work,” she says.

By that, she means you need a deep knowledge of Cisco processes, serial numbers, where products are manufactured, how they flow, and so on. The work also calls for an ability to spot counterfeit products, deal with partners and internal stakeholders, and more.

These days, Alessia does much more than detective work.

In October, she became our Global Investigations Operations Lead for Brand Protection. The role represents the culmination of a 20-year Cisco career, more than half of which she spent working as a Brand Protection investigator and manager.

Based in her native Rome, Italy, Alessia has recently broadened her responsibilities. Three years ago, she began managing our Brand Protection hub in Poland. In 2019, she added the Beirut, Lebanon, group to her scope. In 2020, her role has expanded twice, first to cover APJC (with an emphasis on China) and later the Americas.

The warehouse that was full of fraudulently obtained Cisco products.
The warehouse that was full of fraudulently obtained Cisco products.

Following the Clues

Yes, about that multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. It all started with a lead — a small anomaly in a deal — from another Brand Protection detective in the U.K. That information, combined with intelligence uncovered by further investigations in Rome, led to something bigger.

The deal turned out to be one of the millions of small deals booked by a network of 17 Cisco Partners that had been operating under the radar for two years. The common thread among them? They all shipped to the same logistics company. But the company’s address raised more questions than it answered.

For starters, there was no record of it at the local Chamber of Commerce. And it had no phone number.

Once Alessia checked out the address — first using Google Street View, then in person — she found a nondescript warehouse with no logo.

“It was really dodgy,” she says. “You learn how to recognize signs that something isn’t right, then you follow the lead.”

For Alessia, following the lead meant getting creative: She called neighboring property owners, pretending she was looking to rent the warehouse. They told her there was a lot of movement of goods to the place. It still didn’t make sense that all these companies were shipping to this location.

A Discount Abuse Scheme Uncovered

After further digging, the team learned that the logistics firm was a shell company. Using their Cisco Partner status, the 17 companies were buying discounted Cisco product, then reselling it through the logistics company on the gray market for profit.

The scheme was a breach of agreement aimed at defrauding Cisco through discount abuse.

To collect more evidence of suspected wrongdoing, Cisco Brand Protection launched an audit with each of the partners identified. As is typical in fraud cases, most of the partners refused to cooperate with the audits.

Two companies have emerged as the orchestrators of the scheme. In total, 16 partners have been removed from the Cisco Partner Program.

The investigation has been a big win for Alessia and Brand Protection. Their responsibilities include keeping the Cisco Channel Program clean and protected for our loyal partners.

Alessia with the global Brand Protection deal governance team.
Alessia with the Brand Protection Global Investigation Ops Team

A Coach for Leaders

Aside from busting the bad guys to protect our brand, Alessia has moonlighted as a career coach since 2018. She offers life and sport coaching services to clients outside of Cisco.

After she learned that Cisco has its own internal coaching organization, she began helping Cisco leaders and employees. She was trained on the TMBC Strengths Coaching Model — an approach favored by Cisco that plays to a person’s strengths.

“I enjoy it very much,” she says.

Her coaching experience adds a unique twist to her management of the Brand Protection team, which consists of about a dozen analysts who support the Cisco Global Brand Protection Investigations.

In the past, the team spent a lot of time on administrative tasks — crunching data, running reports, and so on. But Alessia is empowering them to become Brand Protection investigators. That means giving them more tools, knowledge, and independence through things like peer learning and a globally consistent handbook that she developed.

It’s all part of what makes Alessia the right fit for the job at the right time. Cisco Brand Protection is fixing holes in the company’s systems — for example, through new tools to improve the registration process on cisco.com.

But old-school investigative work still plays a key role in safeguarding the company’s interests. For Alessia, it can also be deeply rewarding — even fun!

“The most exciting part is when you have an intuition about something smelling bad, then you get confirmation,” she says. “The work starts to make sense. It’s a special role.”

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