One cruel step at a time, a gang of fraudsters set about emptying out the bank account of an elderly victim.
The 75-year-old now says he’s been a silly old fool, but he was up against a gang of sophisticated crooks who put great effort into passing themselves off as a legitimate business.
It began with a phone call from Cooper-Newton Management Group, who are apparently based in New York.
Under the “core values” section of its website it promised: “We, at Cooper-Newton Management Group, are guided by the following values. We passionately serve our clients, community and associates. We perform with the highest level of integrity, transparency and confidentiality. Above all, we strive for results that honor God, family and ultimately change lives.”
They claimed to represent a third party that was planning a hostile takeover of a British oil and gas company.
This party was desperate to buy shares in Rockhopper Exploration plc, and the poor chap from Essex – I’ll just use his first name Henry – happened to have 4,290 of them.
The current share price is around 21p, but this mystery buyer was so keen to snap them up that he was offering £15 each.
Unfortunately for Henry, he never saw the warning of the Financial Conduct Authority that Cooper-Newton was not authorised to provide financial services in the UK.
Nor did he see the alert published by the entirely genuine Rockhopper Exploration, which had become aware of unsolicited approaches to its shareholders.
“Rockhopper urges anyone who has received such an approach not to divulge any personal details and always to seek advice in respect of dealing in the shares of listed companies from their financial adviser or other qualified professional,” it says.
And he was also not aware that the Cooper-Newton website was only created in November last year, despite its claims that it has been delivering “real bottom-line results” since 1998.
It insisted that Henry sign a non-disclosure agreement, supposedly because the takeover was secret, in reality to stop him seeking independent advice.
Then he was told to pay £5,148 to cover an insurance bond, which would be refunded after the sale. He wasn’t to know that this would be the first sting of many, the gangs that run this type of fraud carefully milking their victims bit by big.
The deal was then taken over by a second outfit, Sommerville Capital – its website was also only created last November – which gave itself credence with a faked letter from the US stock exchange watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Sommerville Capital told Henry that he could buy “warrants” for more shares in Rockhopper Exploration at £2.10 each, which would then be sold to the mystery buyer at £15.
The crooks then faked a letter from the US Treasury Department, “verifying” that he would receive a total of £217,567 if the deal went ahead.
The minimum number of warrants was 10,000, so Henry handed over £21,000.
Two more demands for payments – bombshells, as Henry put it – came in quick succession.
There was a supposed tax bill of more than £57,000 and a £37,326 late payment penalty, apparently from the US taxman, the Internal Revenue Service, but its letter was as bogus as the others, as was a supposed letter from the US Department of State.
“I smelt a rat but after a very long telephone conversation and being sent an authentication letter I was persuaded to carry on,” he said. “I was also told this was the final stage.”
It wasn’t. The crooks went on to insist that bank charges of £21,419 had to be paid, sending another faked Treasury Department letter, saying that a cheque was ready for him once the charge was settled. Desperate, Henry said: “I was in too deeply, so I paid in hope.”
Then came a demand for £20,000 commission.
To tempt Henry, he was sent a copy of the cheque he was due for $433,861,40 – around £340,000 – in proceeds from the shares and refunds from earlier payments.
Finally he refused: “I said, no more.”
He has lost around £142,000. The fraudsters had patiently and thoroughly insinuated themselves into Henry’s confidence, the fraud from start to finish taking around four months, with emails and phone calls most days as well as the multiple forged letters.
Now the Sommerville Capital website has disappeared, Cooper-Newton is not responding and despite apparently dealing with US firms, his money was transferred to the Philippines.
“This was savings from an inheritance,” said Henry. “Only my wife knows about this, we haven’t even told our children”.
If there’s a lesson, it’s always seek independent financial advice, even if someone tells you to keep a deal confidential. In fact, especially if someone tells you to keep a deal confidential.
The only crumb of comfort I can find here is that hopefully this tale might serve as a warning to others, and thankfully not all crooks are as sophisticated as this lot.
Take the ones who set up a fake Twitter account purporting to belong to Keanu Reeves and that was used to try to trick people into sending money.
There were a few clues that it wasn’t genuine – like the fact that the Matrix star appeared to have just six followers and had only tweeted three times.
“What!? Keanu Reeves is following me?!? And he wants me to help produce his next movie!!!!” posted one recipient with, I assume, massive sarcasm.
Joking aside, Action Fraud responded: “Report fraudulent Twitter accounts to Twitter. Those reports disrupt criminals and stop vulnerable people being scammed.”
Sure enough, the fake account has now been deleted.