Richard Branson is appealing for help after he was almost scammed out of $5m

Emma Haslett
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Branson said he had almost fallen victim to a $5m scam (Source: Getty)

It turns out it isn't just the elderly and vulnerable who fall victim to online scams: it happens to billionaires as well.

In a blog post today, Richard Branson admitted he had almost fallen victim to an online scammer posing as the defence secretary - while one of his friends, a "very successful businessperson", has been ripped off to the tune of $2m (£1.5m).

Branson said the con began six months ago, when his assistant received an official-looking note from Sir Michael Fallon, explaining that a British diplomat had been kidnapped. Because of the way British laws work, they claimed, the government was asking a syndicate of wealthy Brits to pay the ransom. They needed him to contribute $5m.

After a call with someone who "sounded exactly like Sir Michael", Branson wanted to double-check.

I rang Downing Street and asked to be put through to Sir Michael’s office. His secretary assured me that Sir Michael hadn’t spoken to me and that nobody had been kidnapped. It was clearly a scam. I told them what had happened and we passed the matter over to the police.

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As if that wasn't bizarre enough, the same scammer seems to have tried again. Branson wrote that in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which he braved out on his island, Necker, he received a call from a friend in the US who asked when he will return the three-week loan he had asked for to help communities in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

"They told me that they had received an email from somebody claiming they were my assistant, to arrange a call with me. 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," he 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."

According to Branson, his friend gave $2m - which promptly disappeared.

Branson called on anyone with information on the scam to contact his Heist Team (contact details are on his blog).

"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."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said they had not heard of anyone posing as Michael Fallon before.

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