News & Politics

A DC CEO Who’s Trying to Thwart Online Criminals

Keeping up with fraudsters is a full-time job.

Haywood Talcove knows his way around the dark web. Photograph by Kea Dupree.

Every day at 6 AM, Haywood Talcove hops onto the dark web, looking for ways to defraud the US government. Before sunrise, he might encounter a Russian bot that’s bilking the Department of Labor, AI-generated humanoids that cheat IRS facial-recognition software, or a Romanian scammer who’s hawking stolen SNAP cards from a low-tech digital storefront. “This is a virtual, seedy world of organized criminal groups, both domestic and transnational,” Talcove explains, all of which he believes are stealing billions of dollars from programs meant for needy Americans. As CEO of government for LexisNexis Risk Solutions (a division of the analytics company LexisNexis, known for its databases), he’s tasked with keeping abreast of this fraud and figuring out how to stop it.

From an office near Dupont Circle, Talcove and his group develop identity-verification tools that they sell to the government and private sector. Recently, he sat at his desk in black cowboy boots and a company-branded pullover, a “Defund Fraudsters” shirt draped over a nearby chair. “The problem with all the fraud is what these criminal groups use the money for,” he explained. “It’s drugs, it’s terrorism, and it’s child exploitation. Basically, [the taxpayers] are funding that activity.”

Talcove says it would be easy enough to stop. Big banks, for example, aren’t constantly robbed by criminal syndicates, because they update their fraud-prevention technology as scammers develop new techniques. “Yet the SNAP program is still using a magstrip card from the ’70s that’s equivalent to a glorified hotel-room key,” he says. Today, the most sophisticated verification systems look at behavioral patterns: how fast a user types, how often they hesitate, the ways they typically interact with a particular device, whether that device has been previously associated with fraud. “But the public sector doesn’t have the same tools in place that the private sector does to prevent fraud.”

Often, discussions of government fraud are politicized, particularly by those who oppose entitlement programs. “The Republicans are like, ‘Go and shut down this program—it’s not helping,’ ” Talcove says, “and the Democrats are like, ‘Oh, we need to feed the food-insecure.’ ” He believes that these responses miss the point. “No one should go hungry,” he says, “and no one who’s unemployed shouldn’t get a benefit. But can we all agree that organized criminal groups shouldn’t get government benefits?”

That goal is part of what drives Talcove to spend hours each morning trawling the dark web. The other part is stubbornness. “It just bothers me,” he says of the rampant fraud he encounters each day. “I don’t understand things that are solvable that aren’t being solved.”

This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer