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Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson Interview
Billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd., Thursday, May 26, 2016.
Bloomberg— Getty Images

Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, has said he was nearly scammed out of $5 million by a con artist pretending to be the British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon.

In a blog post on the Virgin website, Branson detailed how he had received an official-looking letter from Fallon, asking for an urgent call on a sensitive matter.

Picking up the phone, Branson was told by someone who sounded “exactly like” Fallon that a British diplomat had been kidnapped by terrorists. Normally the British government does not pay ransoms, but Branson was told there was a “very sensitive” reason that a ransom must be paid.

The con artist asked for a contribution of $5 million to a secret fund that the government would find a way of paying back.

Branson said he paused because he had heard of similar set-ups and had to be absolutely sure of the request’s authenticity. After contacting the real Defense Secretary, Branson concluded it was “clearly a scam.”

In the same blog post, Branson detailed how a “very successful businessperson” friend of his had not been as careful.

Branson says he recently received a call from the businessperson asking when Branson would be returning the loan of $2 million. “I had no idea what they were talking about,” wrote Branson.

Together, they concluded that a criminal pretending to be Branson had phoned and asked for a loan to help communities in the British Virgin Islands devastated by hurricanes Maria and Irma. Branson had survived Irma by hiding in a wine cellar on his private island.

“The businessperson, incredibly graciously, gave $2 million, which promptly disappeared,” said Branson. “It’s a heist of enormous scale,” he continued, “and I feel it is likely to be the same person who tried to con me earlier this year.”

Branson said that he was blogging to raise awareness of this type of scam, and ended the post with a call for help in his own cases.