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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Richard Branson targeted by scammers twice

The Virgin billionaire almost lost $5 million to a conman pretending to be the defence secretary, while one of his friends had $2 million stolen

Sir Richard Branson was targeted by a conman pretending to be the British defence secretary. Paul Morigi/WireImage
Sir Richard Branson was targeted by a conman pretending to be the British defence secretary. Paul Morigi/WireImage

Sir Richard Branson has revealed he was targeted by a conman posing as the British defence secretary, while one of his business associates was swindled out of $2 million.

In a blog post on Tuesday, the Virgin boss appealed for help tracking down the conmen, admitting: “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.”

Mr Branson said the first attempted con began half a year ago, when he received an official-looking government note requesting a phone call with Sir Michael Fallon.

The billionaire subsequently spoke to someone who, he says, “sounded exactly like Sir Michael”. The impersonator told him that a British diplomat had been kidnapped, and that the government was urging a number of wealthy British people to pay to ransom.

“He told me that British laws prevented the government from paying out ransoms, which he normally completely concurred with,” Branson said in the blog.

“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 $5 million of the ransom money, which he assured me the British government would find a way of paying back.”

Branson called up Fallon’s office to double check, but the defence secretary said that no one had been kidnapped nor had there been any request for help paying a ransom.

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Six months later, conmen struck again, when one of Branson’s friends had $2 million stolen from him.

Shortly after Hurricane Irma, someone posing as Branson called up one of his business associates and asked him to provide a three-week loan to help communities in the British Virgin Islands, which had been devastated by the storms.

“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," Branson wrote.

"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 $2m, 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.”

Branson added that his friend was an “incredibly generous person who gives to all sorts of causes”, and said that what had happened was “just too sad for words”.

He urged asked anyone with any information about the scam to speak to US criminal authorities or get in touch with Virgin.

"People used to raid banks and trains for smaller amounts," he wrote. "It’s frightening to think how easy it is becoming to pull off these crimes for larger amounts."