Beware of fake Richard Bransons, says billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson.
"We are very concerned that more and more people are being scammed by fraudsters impersonating me," Branson said in a blog post published Wednesday.
According to Branson, scammers pose as him or a member of his team and private message unsuspecting people on social media or via email, promoting "get-rich-quick schemes." The scammers sometimes include a photo of Branson, and they often target people who have commented on Branson's social media feeds, says the post.
"These scammers then attempt to extract personal information and cash from them and can be quite convincing," Branson writes.
In one scam, according to the post, a fraudster pretending to be Branson's personal assistant asked people who had posted Branson's official social media channels to submit a form to become members of "Virgin Group Worldwide," which would make them eligible to get some kind of "financial assistance." The form then required divulging personal information and an administration fee.
There are also fake advertisements which connect Branson to "get-rich-quick" ideas such as binary trading (a kind of option) or cryptocurrency schemes, which often spread through links on social media platforms, says Branson.
"My official social media accounts are all verified and, to be clear, I do not send direct or private messages to my followers and do not send personal messages regarding investments, charity donations or speaking engagements from these accounts or any others," Branson says. "I do not promote get-rich-quick schemes."
The schemes Branson talks about are not unusual.
"These types of scams are very common," Michael Bruemmer, the vice president of consumer protection at consumer credit reporting company Experian tells CNBC Make It. "While I haven't necessarily seen an uptick of celebrity-related scams happening, consumers should always be wary of being contacted on social media or email by anyone they are not familiar with and even when it appears to be from a family member or friend," as accounts can be hacked.
"Social engineering operates on trust. The closer the relationship with the individual, the more likely their person can get the information. Social media, especially Facebook and LinkedIn are not helpful in this case," Bruemmer tells CNBC Make It.
LinkedIn and Facebook each say they have technical measures in place to prevent scammers from infiltrating their networks.
"Attempted fraud and scams do exist and we recommend members take precautions, just as they would with banking or shopping online," a LinkedIn spokesperson tells CNBC Make It. LinkedIn encourages users to report any messages or posts that seem to be scams and provides tips about how to protect yourself from fraudulent messages and what to do if you clicked on one.
And a Facebook spokesperson tells CNBC Make It that "pretending to be someone else goes against our policies, and we remove impostor accounts when we discover them." (In the first quarter of 2019, Facebook removed 2.19 billion fake accounts.) Well known names and brands have badge check marks on their Facebook pages to verify authenticity, a system which has also been introduced on Messenger.
Best practice is always to be cautious, though.
Do not give out personal information or send money without checking the "validity" of the request, Bruemmer says. "If it's from a celebrity or personality you follow on social media, such as this example, do not respond, and go to their actual website or social media page to see if anything about the particular promotion or opportunity is mentioned," Bruemmer says.
Alternatively, you can reach out directly to the celebrity on their social media page or email the associated alias to confirm any kind of promotion, Bruemmer says. "A celebrity has staff that respond to fans. If the source is known to you but you sense something fishy – simply call or email them directly to inquire if they sent you something," Bruemmer tells CNBC Make It.
Scams intended to swindle money take many different forms, of course.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, people reported losing $1.48 billion to fraud in 2018, an increase of 38% over 2017. "The top reports in 2018 were: imposter scams, debt collection, and identity theft," according to the FTC's website.
And Experian said there were 47,567 scams added to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Scam Tracker in 2018 in the United States, an increase from the 45,401 scams reported in 2017. Some of those online business scams included fake apartment or home rentals on Airbnb, fake order cancellation emails from Amazon, and fake ads on Instagram which get customers to buy one product but they are delivered a less expensive, knock-off version.
If you come across or have been a victim of a scam, you should report it to your local law enforcement agency as well as the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting consumers, according to Bruemmer. Branson also asks people report scams involving his name or business to Virgin, here.
This not the first time Branson has talked publicly about scammers.
In May 2018, Branson used his blog to alert his followers to scams, especially cryptocurrency related frauds. "They often have titles involving quitting your job and yours truly investing in bitcoin financial tech," Branson said at the time. Branson said he and his team had "dealt with hundreds of instances" over the previous year.
And in 2017, Branson detailed two multimillion-dollar scams that involved him. In one instance, Branson was the victim: Someone posing as a government officer told Branson that the United Kingdom's Secretary of State for Defense, Sir Michael Fallonto, had been kidnapped and tried to get him to wire $5 million in ransom money. Branson talked to Sir Michael's secretary, learned the officer had not been kidnapped and turned over the information to the police.
In the other instance, a fraudster called a friend of Branson's, also a successful business person, and did an "extremely accurate impression" of the Virgin Group billionaire. The fraudster claimed to need $2 million for clean up in the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma. Branson's friend gave the $2 million to the impersonator, "incredibly graciously," Branson says. That money "promptly disappeared." "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," Branson said.
This story has been updated to include responses from LinkedIn and Facebook.
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