The imitation game: how voice-impression con men targeted Richard Branson - and made millions
‘I was asked to contribute US$5m of the ransom money, which he assured me the British government would find a way of paying back’
Billionaire Sir Richard Branson has revealed he was the target of two elaborate confidence tricks – one involving someone posing as the British defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, in a phone call.
In another con, a “very successful” US business associate was swindled out of US$2 million by someone posing as Branson himself
“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,” the Virgin tycoon said.
Branson said the first attempted scam began when he received a letter six months ago, on what appeared to be official government notepaper, requesting an urgent phone call with Fallon.
He spoke to someone who sounded “exactly like” Fallon and told him that a British diplomat had been kidnapped and was being held to ransom.
“He told me that British laws prevented the government from paying out ransoms, which he normally completely concurred with,” Branson said in a blog describing the attempted scam.
“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 business persons to step in.
“I was asked to contribute US$5 million of the ransom money, which he assured me the British government would find a way of paying back.”
Branson said the person posing as Fallon told him he could verify that the kidnap plot was real by sending a senior staff member to Whitehall to speak with his secretary, who would use the code word “Davenport”.
But Branson said that when he rang Fallon’s office, the defence secretary assured him nobody had been kidnapped and that he had made no request to help with a ransom.
He passed details of the failed scam to the police but was again targeted six months later with a separate “heist of enormous scale” that saw a business associate of Branson’s conned out of US$2 million.
In this case, someone doing an “extremely accurate” impression of Branson asked a US businessman by telephone to provide a three-week loan of US$2 million to help rebuild the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma.
“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 US$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 con man. We quickly realised he had been duped out of his money by a criminal pretending to be me.”
Branson said the business associate could not 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,” he added.
“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 con man.”
Branson asked anyone with any information about the scam to speak to US criminal authorities or get in touch with Virgin.