From ‘Tinder Swindler’ to Elon Musk, a brief history of billionaire impersonation scams
Georgia inmate used contraband cellphones to impersonate California billionaire Sidney Kimmel, last week’s bombshell claims report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
AArthur Lee Cofield Jr., the 31-year-old inmate, stole $11 million from Kimmel’s bank account by convincing Charles Schwab’s customer service representatives that he was the 94-year-old billionaire. Cofield then transferred his stolen funds to an Idaho company, exchanged them for one-ounce gold coins, chartered a private plane to fly those coins to Atlanta, and then bought a 4.4 million dollars with the help of two accomplices.
Kimmel, worth an estimated $1.5 billion, was not the only billionaire targeted by Cofield, prosecutors say. Nicole Wertheim, wife of billionaire inventor Herbert Wertheim, also lost $2.25 million. “Mr. Cofield found a way to access accounts belonging to high net worth individuals, frankly billionaires, located across the country,” Scott McAfee, a federal prosecutor, told a bond hearing in December. 2020.
It’s unclear how many billionaires Cofield has targeted. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia declined to comment.)
What is clear: Fraudsters can make a lot of money pretending to be billionaires. Beyond Willie Sutton’s famous line about why he robbed banks – “because that’s where the money is” – scams can be directed at brands that may have heard talk about people who are rich but who may not know them well enough to know if the people they are dealing with are the billionaires they claim to be. Sometimes scammers may desire the notoriety of being able to tell their friends that they have dealt with a big player. Other times, it’s just greed. They think they can get a handful of the profit from the rich or take advantage of the billionaire’s connections to get rich as well. Sometimes they get away with it.
Simon Leviev, the “Tinder Swindler” whose story was told on Netflix, defrauded numerous women out of around $10 million by posing as the son of Lev Leviev, a 66-year-old Israeli diamond tycoon whose fortune Forbes estimated at $1 billion in 2018. Anna Sorokin, another hustler turned subject of the Netflix series, stole $275,000 (and nearly landed a $22 million loan) posing as Anna Delvey, an heiress fictitious German. Sorokin did not claim any relationship with any specific billionaire clan, but at least one acquaintance thought his father was “a titan of the oil industry”. (He actually runs a small heating and cooling business).
In another extraordinary case, Hargobind Tahilramani, a 41-year-old Indonesian, allegedly defrauded some 300 people out of more than $1 million by posing as ultra-wealthy Hollywood executives and philanthropists. Tahilramani, who is currently at risk of extradition to the US from the UK (where he was arrested in 2020), has reportedly posed as women like billionaire producer and philanthropist Gigi Pritzker; Wendi Murdoch, wife of Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch; and Christine Hearst Schwarzman, corporate lawyer and wife of private equity baron Stephen Schwarzman. The Hollywood Reportr prime covered 2018 Tahilramani’s elaborate scam; the tale has since been immortalized in a short film and a podcast, with a forthcoming book.
Of course, not all billionaire impersonators are brought to justice; few know this better than Richard Branson, the British billionaire behind space company Virgin Galactic. Branson’s name and likeness have been used in fraudulent schemes on several occasions. In 2017, a scammer posing as Branson stole $2 million of an American businessman who thought he would provide an emergency loan for disaster relief after Hurricane Irma hit the British Virgin Islands. (It’s unclear if the case was ever resolved; a representative for the billionaire could not confirm.) Branson warned in 2018and again in 2019, about its impersonators promoting financial and cryptocurrency scams. Branson has become something of an anti-scam lawyer: Virgin now operates a Portal “Report a scam”; Branson recounted an animated video warning about virtual imitators; and last November, Branson required Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson cracked down on fraudulent advertisements online.
Branson’s copycat problem began in earnest in 2017, “following a flurry of bitcoin-related scam activity,” a Virgin Group spokesperson said. Forbes in August 2020. His team “handled” “hundreds of cases of fake sites and scammers impersonating me or my team online,” they said.
If Branson’s fame has attracted fraudsters, then generosity is what has afflicted MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist (and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) who has given away $12.7 billion to more than 1,250 organizations since mid-2020. Scott’s donation spree was so widespread and low-key that many real recipients thought Scott’s representatives were scammers. Sure enough, Scott’s donation inspired a real scam operation. Scott impersonators and bogus employees of a made-up foundation tricked people into paying them thousands of dollars in exchange for promised multimillion-dollar “donations.” New York Times reported Last year.
Chuck Feeney, a former billionaire who gave away his entire fortune, had a similar problem. The co-founder of retail giant Duty Free Shoppers has repeatedly warned against scammers claiming to be him or employees of his foundation. He maintains a running tab new phishing impersonators.
In recent years, as fraudsters flocked to cryptocurrency, billionaire impersonators followed. Changpeng Zhao, CEO of digital asset exchange Binance and one of the richest people in crypto, complained last month about armies of his impersonators scouring Twitter with fraudulent investment schemes. Scam artists posing as Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, stole more than $2 million from cryptocurrency schemes over a 6-month period last year, the Federal Trade Commission reported. This period coincided with Musk’s infatuation with Dogecoin, a meme cryptocurrency he touted on Twitter and promised to make available as a payment method for Tesla.
Even more alarmingly, the future of billionaire impersonators may lie in deepfakes, digitally altered videos that interpret false reality. In May, a deepfake published by Bitvex, a fake crypto company, showed an individual who appeared to be Musk. In a stilted voice, the fake Musk, speaking from a stage, touted Bitvex as a “new investment project” that would reward investors with “30% dividends every day for the rest of their lives.”
“Yuck. Definitely not me”, the real Musk later tweeted.