The U.K.'s General Medical Council revealed Sunday that a psychologist employed for over two decades by the national healthcare system was a fraudster who'd fabricated her qualifications in the 1990s and, despite multiple warning signs, had been scamming the system and patients ever since — and getting a hefty paycheck to do it. Her decades-long fraud was only discovered when she attempted to fake the will of an elderly patient to scam $2.4 million from her family.
In a series of statements about the embarrassing failure to properly vet the faux-psychiatrist, who has since been sentenced to five years in prison, the GMC assured the public that they'd significantly improved their vetting process since the scam artist was hired and provided patients of the fake psychologist information on what to do if they felt they'd been harmed.
"We recently became aware that Zholia Alemi used a fraudulent qualification to join the medical register in 1995 and worked as a doctor until June 2017," GMC Chief Executive Charlie Massey said in a statement Sunday. "These are serious issues and we are investigating them urgently to understand how this happened. We have brought this to the attention of police and other agencies, including NHS England, so that they may also take any necessary action to support patients and answer any questions they may have."
Massey then assured patients that the GMC has already made the changes necessary to ensure that any more fraudsters get through. "Our processes are far stronger now, with rigorous testing in place to ensure those joining the register are fit to work in the UK," he continued. "It is clear that in this case the steps taken in the 1990s were inadequate and we apologise for any risk arising to patients as a result. We are confident that, 23 years on, our systems are robust and would identify any fraudulent attempt to join the medical register. Patients deserve good care from appropriately qualified professionals and place a great deal of trust in doctors. To exploit that trust and the respected name of the profession is abhorrent."
In another statement posted by the council, the GMC provides former patients of Alemi steps to take to submit their complaints and queries.
The New Zealand Herald details some of the "despicable" details of Alemi's "two-decade deception." Alemi, originally from New Zealand, was sentenced to five years "after eventually being found out when she was convicted of trying to fake the will of an elderly female patient," the outlet reports. "Had she been successful, she would have stolen up to £1.3 million ($2.4m) of the woman's fortune."
Back in 1992, Alemi, now 56, told the GMC that she had a degree from University of Auckland, when in reality she'd actually flunked out in her first year. The council didn't bother verifying the legitimacy of her forged document, so her fraudulent career was up and running.
"For the next 22 years, starting in 1995, she worked as a psychiatrist for the UK's National Health Service - treating thousands of mental health patients over that period and potentially earning up to £100,000 ($188,000) a year," the outlet reports. "She also reportedly drove a Lotus Elise sports car."
A former personal assistant of Alemi, Claire Wilkinson, who worked with her from 2014 to 2015, says she'd tried to warn others about "bizarre" behavior by the fake psychiatrist.
"She was very money driven; she lived for money," Wilkinson told Plymouth Live. "She would only find the wealthy men attractive - even if they weren't attractive. She went for wealth and hierarchy."
Wilkinson also says that Alemi once prescribed "electrotherapy" to treat a young girl with a troubled home life.
Though Wilkinson notified higher-ups, no one took action. Alemi had also been given a pass by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service in 2012 "after failing to disclose a conviction for careless driving."
As reported by the Daily Mail, the scam that finally got Alemi busted, after 22 years and "thousands" of patients, involved her attempt to take over two million dollars from an 84-year-old patient.
Alemi "was working as a locum old-age psychiatrist at Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in 2016 when she met 84-year-old Gillian Belham," the Mail reports. "Alemi befriended Mrs Belham, but when she was accused of stealing watches from the pensioner, police discovered she had been working to take control of her finances – even deceiving some of her friends into being signatories on a new will."
The Herald notes that Alemi had "entirely written out" Belham's extended family and inserted her own grandchildren into the will. The judge who sentenced her to five years condemned her actions as "wicked."
"This was despicable, cruel criminality motivated by pure greed and you must be severely punished for it," said Judge James Adkin.