How a conman stole $2 million by impersonating Richard Branson during Hurricane Irma disaster recovery

Sir Richard Branson shows damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Necker Island.
Source: Virgin.com

While the billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson was largely offline during and after Hurricane Irma, which ravaged the British Virgin Islands in September, a conman impersonated him and stole $2 million.

"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 iconic entrepreneur says on his blog Tuesday.

Branson found out about the heist when he got back online after the storm. A "very successful businessperson" friend of Branson's wrote asking when he could expect to be repaid the money he had lent Branson to help the British Virgin Islands recover after Irma.

"I had no idea what they were talking about," Branson says in his blog.

His (unidentified) friend had gotten an email from someone who said they were Branson's assistant and arranged a call.

"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 mobilize 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," Branson says.

The businessman friend gave $2 million towards what he thought were recovery efforts. The money went directly to the conman instead.

It's a heist of enormous scale.
Richard Branson
billionaire entrepreneur

Branson's friend "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," Branson says.

"It's a heist of enormous scale," the iconic entrepreneur says of the millions lost.

Branson says he expects the conman is the same individual who had tried to steal $5 million from him six months ago. In that situation, Branson's assistant received a written request "on what appeared to be official government notepaper" for a call from a British official.

"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," says Branson.

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

Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec: Easy ways to keep your data safer
Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec: Easy ways to keep your data safer

Branson was suspicious and called Sir Michael's office to confirm the legitimacy of the request. The governmental official informed Branson that he had not called making a request and nobody had been kidnapped. The call and request for $5 million was a hoax. He informed the police of the attempted con, Branson says.

"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," says Branson. "But this one really takes the biscuit!"

Going forward, the billionaire entrepreneur would like to see law enforcement resources currently being used to arrest drug felons redirected toward finding and stopping scam artists.

"This is happening all the time, but worse, it is happening to people for $1000 here, $500 there, $2000 there who can't afford it," says Branson on CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday. "I think the police need to put their attention on this much more. The war on drugs has been failed for 60 years. They should regulate and decriminalize drugs and help people with a drug problem and put all those people that are dealing with drugs, they should concentrate on all the vulnerable people that are being hurt in this way I think."

Though most people are unlikely to have millions of dollars available for the stealing, there are certainly precautions worth taking to thwart scams. See the stories below for tips on how to avoid being caught unaware.

Ex FBI agent: 2 things you need to know to avoid falling for a money scam

How to protect yourself from hurricane repair scams

Fraud alert! Don't fall for these financial scams

Buyer beware! The top 10 investment scams

'Shark Tank' investor Robert Herjavec: 7 simple steps to protect yourself from hackers

This former FBI agent shares her best tips to avoid scams
This former FBI agent shares her best tips to avoid scams

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This story has been updated.