The Con Man Who Sold Incredibly Fake Bomb Detectors to the Iraqi Government

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
May 2 2013 2:56 PM

The Con Man Who Sold Incredibly Fake Bomb Detectors to the Iraqi Government

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An Iraqi police man holding a ADE651 bomb detector device as he walks along side a stopped vehicle at a checkpoint in central Baghdad.

Photo by Khalil AL-Murshidi/AFP/Getty Images

A con artist who sold millions of dollars worth of fake bomb detectors to the Iraqi government and other international agencies was sentenced today to 10 years in prison on three counts of fraud, the maximum term for his crimes under British law.

The judge that handed down Jim McCormick's sentence called the scheme "a callous confidence trick" and the most serious case of fraud he's ever seen, according to the Guardian. It's easy to see why: the devices cost less than $50 to make, and were based mostly on a novelty golf-ball finder called the Gopher. The ADE651 "bomb detectors" were then sold for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars. The first-generation ADE detector, the 101, was just a Gopher with a different sticker on it.

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According to a 2009 report from the New York Times, the Iraqi government purchased more than 1,500 ADE651s, at costs ranging from $16,500 to $60,000 a pop. "Nearly every police checkpoint, and many Iraqi military checkpoints, have one of the devices, which are now normally used in place of physical inspections of vehicles," the paper wrote then.

Newer versions, as Vice magazine notes, had a "weightier" handle and an "impressive" carrying case to make them look and feel more legit than the original product—but the cosmetic improvements did nothing to help detect explosives. The glorified props accepted a credit card-sized piece of plastic, which was supposed to provide power. In fact, they did nothing. Despite having no power source, McCormick claimed his detectors worked underground, through buildings, at long range, and through lead. In reality, they are a handle with an antennae attached that can move from side to side. At least one military expert has aptly compared the ADE devices to an expensive divining rod or Ouigi board.

Here's the Guardian with the scene from the courtroom:

The judge told McCormick as he sat impassive in the dock: "Your fraudulent conduct in selling so many useless devices for simply enormous profit promoted a false sense of security and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals."
He described how McCormick sold, with a small number of agents, 7,000 devices under the ADE brand to the Iraqi government and other international agencies for prices ranging from $2,500 per unit to $30,000, when they cost less than $50. "The device was useless, the profit outrageous and your culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category," he told McCormick, who now stands to have assets worth millions of pounds confiscated.

McCormick's defense team tried but failed to convince the judge that the con man shouldn't be held culpable in deaths that resulted from bombs that managed to pass undetected through security checkpoints that relied on his devices. His lawyers argued, essentially, that the insurgency was so bad that no device would have worked. The "bomb detectors," which were still being used as recently as this year in some areas despite being debunked years ago, have allegedly been involved in the death and injury of thousands in Iraq alone.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.