Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson was this year the target of a $US5 million ($6.37 million) scam, in a ploy that reveals the lengths some scammers are prepared to go to.
Branson has related details of the scam via a blog post, saying that six months ago, his assistant received a written request “on what appeared to be official government notepaper” asking for Branson to contact UK Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon.
“I called Sir Michael on the number given,” Branson says.
“He told me it was an incredibly sensitive matter and that he wanted to be sure there was nobody else in the room whilst I talked to him. He asked that we speak in strict confidence and said that a British diplomat had been kidnapped and was being held by terrorists.”
The person Branson spoke to then explained that while British laws prevent the government from paying out ransoms, “there was a particular, very sensitive, reason why they had to get this diplomat back”, and this had led to a syndicate of British businesspersons being confidentially asked to step in. For his part, Branson was being asked to part with $US5 million.
Aware of the potential for being scammed, Branson says he explained to this person that he would need to follow up and confirm the details.
“He said he fully understood and that I should send one of my senior team over to his department at Whitehall to have a quiet word with his secretary,” Branson writes.
“He said that she was the only other person who knew about it and that if we said the code word ‘Davenport’, she would affirm it was for real.”
But Branson says when he then sought to get in touch with Fallon, whose secretary assured him that it wasn’t actually Fallon he had spoken to.
“It was clearly a scam,” Branson writes.
“I told them what had happened and we passed the matter over to the police.”
Loan scam “a heist of enormous scale”
Branson has also revealed that a friend of his was the victim of a US$2 million scam in which a scammer impersonated Branson.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the scammer had contacted the unnamed businessperson, claiming to be Branson’s assistant and requesting a call be made to Branson.
Branson says “the conman did an extremely accurate impression of me”, spinning a lie about how he was trying to mobilise aid in the British Virgin Islands and urgently needed a loan.
“They claimed I couldn’t get hold of my bank in the UK because I didn’t have any communications going to Europe and I’d only just managed to make a satellite call to the businessman in America,” Branson writes.
“The businessperson, incredibly graciously, gave $2 million, which promptly disappeared.”
Branson says that, speaking to his friend and having convinced him of his identity by providing details of their last get-together, they “quickly realised he had been duped out of his money by a criminal pretending to be me”.
Describing it as “a heist of enormous scale”, Branson says he feels “it is likely to be the same person who tried to con me earlier this year”.
“There has been a big rise in fake ad scams online recently, and I’d urge everyone to look out for them and report any you see,” he writes.
“It’s not just online it can happen – it could be on the phone or even in person.”