A screenshot of one of the bogus ABC News articles used to publicise the scam. (Supplied: Consumer Protection WA)
It’s known as the ID ‘golden ticket’. Once fraudsters get hold of it your life is forever compromised
A West Australian woman has lost more than $600,000 to an online investment scam that used a bogus endorsement by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest and created fake ABC News articles to publicise the scam on Facebook and LinkedIn.
- The woman was sucked in by investment ads promoted on social media networks
- She said law enforcement authorities were not equipped to deal with her problem
- Mr Forrest said he never disclosed his investment decisions beyond his legal obligations
The woman, who has asked not to be identified, saw advertisements for an online trading platform on social media in March.
Over several months she transferred a total of $670,000 to the scammers, believing it was being invested on her behalf.
The woman said at first she believed the site was legitimate as the advertisements on Facebook and LinkedIn which included fake interviews with Mr Forrest claimed to be from reputable news agencies, including the ABC.
“This scam was so convincing, it’s like watching news on the television,” she said.
“If you were to watch the news on the television, you would believe the news on the television, you don’t go questioning and calling back the legitimacy of that news.”
Fraudsters transferred back about $50,000 when she asked for some of her investment to be repaid and she was sent a $2,700 Louis Vuitton handbag as a birthday present while the scam was running.
But then when she started asking for more money back, they company suddenly became hard to contact.
The slickly produced website to which she was referred claimed to be based in the Caribbean state of St Vincent and the Grenadines, but all contact details were for a United Kingdom number.
A search of the website’s metadata revealed a service had been purchased to conceal the registrant’s details and IP address.
The website remains up and running.
‘You blame yourself’
The woman said she and her husband were not wealthy and losing that much money was a terrible blow.
“When I knew that I had been scammed, I felt terrible. I felt I may not be the person I think I am,” she said.
“You blame yourself. I didn’t know what my husband would say.
The woman said the fake stories looked so authentic she believed the scam was real. (ABC News: Anthony Pancia)
“But he’s a beautiful gentleman … he didn’t say for once, ‘you’ve screwed up’.
“I knew I’d screwed up, but not once did he point it out.”
Hitting a law enforcement ‘brick wall’
But when she tried to contact authorities to report her loss, she said she hit a “brick wall” and discovered gaps in Australia’s ability to deal with large-scale fraud.
She reported the incident to the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) and the Australian Federal Police’s operations monitoring centre, and said she was told to go straight to WA Police.
But when she drove from the regional WA town where she lives to police headquarters in Perth, she said an officer there did not want to take her report.
She was told her case had been referred to WA Police’s fraud squad and they would be in touch within three days. But eight days later she said she has had no further contact.
“I believe that [scams have] become the cancer within our community, within Australia, and authorities have to collaborate and work together to address this issue,” she said.
“If it’s rampant, it’s happening repeatedly, it’s because we’re failing to address it in the community and in the system.”
A spokeswoman for WA Police said their online crime division had received a report about the woman’s case from the ACSC on the day it was made.
She said WA Police tracked the money and found it had been transferred to an account registered in the eastern states and the case had been referred to another state police force.
The Australian Signals Directorate, which runs the cyber security centre, has been contacted for comment.
Forrest calls on social media to fight scams
A spokeswoman for Andrew Forrest said his office had become aware of the scam in early 2019.
“We are doing what we can to try and alert the various social media platforms on which these scams are perpetuated,” she said in a statement.
“We have encouraged our staff to report incidents using platform protocols.
Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest, one Australia’s richest people, was the face used in the scam. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)
“We have also been engaging with the social media entities at an executive level, in an effort to stop the publication of these scam advertisements and to improve the identification and speed of the reaction to any that are published.
“We have asked the social media platforms to take more proactive steps to eliminate the scam advertisements utilising the technology available to them. Our negotiations with those entities remain ongoing.”
She said Mr Forrest did not publish information about investments he or his family made, except as required by law, and people should not rely on statements about the Forrest family’s investments as being recommendations or endorsements to invest.
She said Mr Forrest had not endorsed or invested in Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency.
The challenge of stamping out fraudulent websites
A spokeswoman from the ABC said there was little that could be done to remove the webpages that purported to be published by the national broadcaster.
“It’s near impossible to find out who hosts the websites and attempts at contacting the hosts have been unsuccessful,” she said.
“The articles are mainly accessed via Facebook ads so we target the ads in an effort to remove the articles’ visibility on the net.
“When we become aware of an ad, we contact Facebook and have it taken down. We also put out warnings about these scams on social media sites.”
If your identity is stolen:
A Facebook spokesman said the company removed adverts found to be violating its policies about false or misleading content.
He said from January to March the company disabled 2.19 billion fake accounts and also prevented millions from registering in the first place.
“We’re investing heavily in technology like machine learning, computer vision and artificial intelligence to help us quickly find more of these types of scams and remove them from our platform,” he said.
“We also encourage people to report this kind of behaviour if they see it.”
A spokeswoman for LinkedIn said the company also deleted fraudulent activity as soon as it was detected.
“We recommend our members to connect only with people they know and trust, and take the necessary precautions in online interactions, bearing in mind that there are people who will occasionally misuse the online space,” she said in a statement.
Consumer Protection Commissioner Penny Lipscombe said scammers were becoming much more sophisticated.
“It’s becoming quite common for them to get photographs or other information from celebrities, including high-profile businesspeople like Mr Forrest, and attach that to information they’re putting out to lure potential victims.”