When John saw an image of television personality David Koch promoting a bitcoin business in his Facebook feed, he didn’t pay much attention.
Then the 80-year-old pensioner on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast saw entrepreneur Dick Smith was also promoting the same business and he thought “this must be for real”.
John telephoned the business number, which had a Sydney area code, and agreed to have US$500 taken out of his Qantas cash card.
That was just the first transaction, but then he was encouraged to access his bank account and send more cash.
“He was giving me all these figures and I thought it was genuine and sent him the money,” John said.
Six weeks later — after investing more than $80,000 — John realised it was a scam when there were none of the promised returns.
“He kept promising me money but I never got any,” John said.
“Then I got in touch with the bank and they blocked my account.”
John went to the police station, but he said he was told they were too busy to help.
“I didn’t know it was a scam. I’ve lost nearly $82,000 and it feels like my heart has been ripped out of my chest,” he said.
He’s been too embarrassed to pursue it further and keeps hoping, somehow, he can get his money back.
John is one of hundreds of people caught out in online scams that use the identities of high-profile personalities like Dick Smith, Mel Gibson, David Koch and Waleed Aly to make them appear authentic.
Trusted brands like the ABC have also had their logo included in advertising pages to help make the scam look more authentic.
16 people a day caught out in scams
Cybersecurity expert David Lacey said his charity IDCARE, which offers support for victims of cybercrime, was seeing around 16 people each day caught out in scams like John’s and the number was increasing.
“We have seen a 27 per cent increase over the past three months compared to this time last year,” Professor Lacey said.
“I am guessing low interest rates, possible hits in returns from super, and financial strains are motivating some to take risks more now than in the past.”
Dick Smith has been unable to stop the fraudsters using him as bait for their crime.
Mr Smith said he had been to state and federal police urging them to stop the fraudulent activity with no success.
“We’ve had letters going backwards and forwards,” Mr Smith said.
He was at a loss to understand why police told him it was “basically impossible to stop” as he thought it would be a case of following the money.
“I understand they don’t know where the emails are coming from, but if people are sending money surely you are able to trace the money,” he said.
Mr Smith said the scam was “very professionally done” as even the way it was worded sounded like something he would say.
“The comments attributed to me are exactly how I talk. I reckon it’s being run out of Australia,” Mr Smith said.
“Police are still working on it, but if anyone knows more, it would be good to know.”
Scams nothing new for authorities
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) was also aware of the scam.
“ASIC is aware of fake endorsements used to legitimise scams,” a spokesperson said.
“The fraudulent use of celebrities, prominent businesses and government agencies in the marketing of financial products and services is a key indicator of a scam.
“Scammers are often based overseas. When money is paid from an Australian account or credit card into an Australian or foreign account, it is often cleared and moved within minutes to other offshore accounts.
“This means that when things go wrong, recovering money that has been lost can often be near impossible.
“Victims should contact their bank as soon as possible if they think they have been the victim of a scam. They should also report the matter to police.”
How to detect a scam
The spokesperson urged people to be wary of unsolicited contact seeking personal and banking details.
“Where credit card details have already been provided to a possible scammer, victims should report it to their bank or financial institution to determine whether it may be appropriate to suspend or cancel the card,” the spokesperson said.
“If you think you or someone you know has been scammed, lodge a report of misconduct with ASIC. Your report may disrupt the scammers and hopefully will warn others to avoid it.”
As for Mr Smith, his advice was more simple.
“If someone is trying to offer you money cheaply, take no notice of it, it is a scam,” he said.
“I don’t know anything about bitcoin. I’ve never bought any.”