This story sounds like it has come straight out of a John le Carré book or a James Bond film, but it is sadly all true.
Six months ago my assistant received a written note on what appeared to be official government notepaper from Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon, requesting an urgent call with me. I called Sir Michael on the number given. 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.
He told me that British laws prevented the government from paying out ransoms, which he normally completely concurred with. But he said on this occasion there was a particular, very sensitive, reason why they had to get this diplomat back. So they were extremely confidentially asking a syndicate of British businesspersons to step in. I was asked to contribute $5million dollars of the ransom money, which he assured me the British government would find a way of paying back.
I said to Sir Michael that I was sympathetic to his request, but that in the last week I had come across a couple of incidents where people had been scammed. I needed to be absolutely certain that this wasn’t such an event, and that he was who he said he was. 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. 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.
Although the Sir Michael I spoke to sounded exactly like Sir Michael, I was understandably cautious. After I had asked one of my lawyers to go to Whitehall, I rang Downing Street and asked to be put through to Sir Michael’s office. His secretary assured me that Sir Michael hadn’t spoken to me and that nobody had been kidnapped. It was clearly a scam. I told them what had happened and we passed the matter over to the police.
Six months on, as I got back online for the first time after the devastating Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands, I received an email from a friend in the US. A very successful businessperson, they asked me when I would be returning the three week loan I had asked for to help the BVI communities. I had no idea what they were talking about.
They told me that they had received an email from somebody claiming they were my assistant, to arrange a call with me. When the call happened the conman did an extremely accurate impression of me and spun a big lie about urgently needing a loan while I was trying to mobilise aid in the BVI. 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. The business person, incredibly graciously, gave $2 million, which promptly disappeared.
I spoke to the business person and had to tell him specific details of our last get-together before he was convinced it was really me and not the conman. We quickly realised he had been duped out of his money by a criminal pretending to be me. He has spent his life being cautious and told me he couldn’t believe how stupid he had been. He is an incredibly generous person who gives to all sorts of causes, and it is just too sad for words that of all people it was he who had fallen for it.
Richard Branson using an ipad
It’s a heist of enormous scale, and I feel it is likely to be the same person who tried to con me earlier this year. I must admit I regret not publicising the earlier attempt to con me sooner, to have helped alert others to the danger, but we had to be sensitive to ongoing investigations.
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. It’s not just online it can happen – it could be on the phone or even in person. But this one really takes the biscuit! I’m very sorry for this incredibly kind man and incredibly grateful that they were willing to help us after the hurricane. If only their money had gone to the people of the BVI, not the conman.
People used to raid banks and trains for smaller amounts - it’s frightening to think how easy it is becoming to pull off these crimes for larger amounts.
If there is anybody out there who can provide information that may help the US authorities find the conman who stole the businessman’s money, please speak to the US authorities or write anonymously or in person to:
The Heist Team, Virgin Group
The Battleship Building
179 Harrow Road
In the UK, if you see anything suspicious like these sorts of scams you should report them to Action Fraud, which I wrote about in a blog in April this year.
Update: I have heard from David Reuben that he was also among those targeted by the conman posing as Sir Michael Fallon. Using almost identical tactics to those he used with me, the conman tried to extract funds from David too. Thankfully David was rightly suspicious and the attempt failed.