With an estimated net worth of $4.4 billion and a classic entrepreneurial backstory, Branson’s familiar smile, goatee and shock of blond hair is—alongside pop star Ed Sheeran—a popular celebrity face used in dubious “get rich quick” scams, according to the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center.
Last week, Branson threw his support behind the NCSC in the battle against financial scams that have been using his image to endorse “bogus” investment opportunities. The NCSC said that it had taken down more than 300,000 malicious URLs linking to fake celebrity-endorsed investment schemes that use “mocked-up online news articles featuring the rich and famous,” to “lure people into making bogus investments.”
Branson said in a statement that his team has “dealt” with “hundreds of instances of fake sites and fraudsters impersonating me or my team online,” and confirmed that he is working in partnership with the NCSC to get the misleading articles taken down. “Sadly, the scams are not going to disappear overnight, and I would urge everyone to be vigilant and always check for official website addresses and verified social media accounts,” Branson said.
Stories of Branson’s personal battles with cybercriminals have in the past been described by the Virgin founder as “straight out of a John le Carré book or a James Bond film.”
One story Branson blogged about online back in October 2017 tells of how the Virgin founder was asked by the then U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Sir Michael Fallon to pay $5 million in ransom for a British diplomat who had been “kidnapped” and was “being held by terrorists.” The conman “assured” Branson that the British government “would find a way” of paying him the $5 million back.
Branson added in a blog post on the debacle, “The Sir Michael I spoke to sounded exactly like Sir Michael, I was understandably cautious.” But the whole thing turned out to be a scam.
Branson then called Whitehall and the scam was revealed to be just that. Billionaire David Reuben also told Branson that he was also among “those targeted by the conman posing as Sir Michael Fallon,” and Branson adds, “Thankfully, David was rightly suspicious and the attempt failed.”
In another attempt, Branson writes on his Virgin blog of a cleaner who approached him and thanked him for his “get rich quick scheme.” The $300 the man had invested had increased to $450, but, Branson writes, “before they paid him the $450 back he had to send in another $1,000 dollars.”
“Posing as his uncle, I got on the phone to the conman. . . . I said we would send the $1,000 but wanted the $450 back first. They refused to refund the money.”
A Virgin Group spokesperson told Forbes that the problem really kicked off in 2017 “following a wave of bitcoin-related scamming activity.” Since then, Branson’s team have been forced to react to the new reality of online scams.
Virgin warns that the latest scam involves using Branson’s face “to enhance credibility” and is usually accompanied by a fake story made to look like it’s from CNN or the BBC. Other methods involve the copying of Virgin websites. “Recently, we have seen criminals registering websites with ‘virgin’ in the name. They then use these websites to operate email addresses to correspond with members of the public and clone genuine Virgin group websites to lend credibility to their scamming activities,” a Virgin director from the London office said.
Some scams come from “sophisticated confidence tricksters,” the Virgin spokesperson adds, that “individual targets are chosen carefully and significant preparation is put in by the criminals, often involving phone calls—in which Richard might be impersonated—to lend authenticity.”
Branson writes online of a scam following the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands in 2017, where a “very successful businessperson” was duped by an “extremely accurate impression” of Branson while the entrepreneur was “trying to mobilize aid in the BVI.”
Branson wrote in October 2017, “The businessperson, incredibly graciously, gave $2 million, which promptly disappeared,” later adding, “this one really takes the biscuit! 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 con man.”