‘Straight out of a James Bond film’: Richard Branson says he nearly lost $5 million to a conman posing as the British defence secretary

Richard Branson.

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Richard Branson.
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Nordic Business Forum

    Richard Branson almost had $5 million (£3.8 million) swindled from him by a person who sounded exactly like UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. “Fallon” told the Virgin founder that a British diplomat had been kidnapped by terrorists, and the government wanted to borrow money. Branson didn’t fall for it.

Richard Branson almost had millions of dollars swindled from him by a conman who sounded exactly like UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.

In a blog post on Tuesday, the British billionaire revealed how six months ago he received a note on what appeared to be official government paper from Fallon with a phone number, requesting an “urgent call.”

The case was, according to the conman, “an incredibly sensitive matter and that he wanted to be sure there was nobody else in the room whilst I talked to him,” Branson wrote.

The person pretending to be Fallon proceeded to tell the Virgin founder that a British diplomat had been kidnapped by terrorists, and that he needed to rescue the individual for “a particular, very sensitive, reason.”

Because the British government was prohibited by law from paying ransoms, the conman said they needed to ask a group of British businesspeople to raise money to get the diplomat back. Fallon’s impersonator asked Branson for $5 million (£3.8 million).

Fortunately for Branson, he was cautious about Fallon’s request and sent his lawyer to go to Whitehall, and spoke to Fallon’s secretary at Downing Street, who said Fallon hadn’t called Branson and that nobody had been kidnapped. The case has since been passed to the police.

Branson and his team hid out in the billionaire's British Virgin Islands house basement during Hurricane Irma.

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Branson and his team hid out in the billionaire’s British Virgin Islands house basement during Hurricane Irma.
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Virgin Group

One of his friends was not so diligent.

Six months after the Fallon scam, a “very successful businessperson” in the US told Branson he had loaned him $2 million (£1.5 million) to aid rehabilitation efforts in the British Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma.

Branson knew nothing of the loan – it turned out that a conman had emailed the unnamed businessman and asked him for the money over the phone in what was sounded like Branson’s voice. The US businessman has not heard of the missing funds since.

“He has spent his life being cautious and told me he couldn’t believe how stupid he had been,” Branson said. “If only their money had gone to the people of the BVI, not the conman.”

Avoiding email scams may be easier said than done. Over the past six months alone, British email prankster James Linton – also known by his Twitter handle, Sinon_Reborn – managed to fool officials including Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and ex-US White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci by posing as their colleagues with fake email addresses.

Linton is not believed to have swindled any money out of these scams.

Branson said: “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.”