A Georgia inmate used contraband cell phones to assume the identity of California billionaire Sidney Kimmel, according to last week’s bombshell report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Arthur Lee Cofield Jr., the 31-year-old inmate, stole $11 million from Kimmel’s bank account by convincing customer service reps at Charles Schwab that he was the 94-year-old billionaire. Cofield then wired his stolen funds to a company in Idaho, exchanged it for one-ounce gold coins, chartered a private plane to fly those coins to Atlanta and then bought a $4.4 million house with the help of two accomplices.
Kimmel, worth an estimated $1.5 billion, was not the only billionaire targeted by Cofield, according to prosecutors. Nicole Wertheim, spouse of billionaire inventor Herbert Wertheim, also lost $2.25 million. “Mr. Cofield has figured out a way to access accounts belonging to high net worth individuals, frankly billionaires, located across the country,” said Scott McAfee, a federal prosecutor, at a December 2020 bond hearing.
It’s not clear how many billionaires Cofield targeted. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Georgia declined to comment.)
What is clear: Fraudsters can make a lot of money by play-acting as billionaires. Beyond the famous Willie Sutton line about why he robbed banks—”because that’s where the money is”—scams can be directed at marks who may have heard of wealthy people but may not have enough familiarity with them to tell whether the people they deal with are the billionaires they say they are. Sometimes, the scammers may desire the notoriety of being able to tell their friends they did deals with a high roller. Other times, it’s plain greed. They think they can get a handful of the rich person’s lucre or take advantage of the billionaire’s connections to get rich, too. Sometimes they get away with it.
Simon Leviev, the “Tinder Swindler” whose story was told on Netflix, conned numerous women out of an estimated $10 million by pretending to be the son of Lev Leviev, a 66-year-old Israeli diamond mogul whose fortune Forbes estimated at $1 billion in 2018. Anna Sorokin, another scammer turned Netflix series subject, stole $275,000 (and nearly nabbed a $22 million loan) by pretending to be Anna Delvey, a fictitious German heiress. Sorokin did not claim relation to any specific billionaire clan, but at least one acquaintance believed her father was “an oil-industry titan.” (He actually runs a small heating-and-cooling business).
In another extraordinary case, Hargobind Tahilramani, a 41-year-old Indonesian man, allegedly conned some 300 people out of over $1 million by impersonating ultra-wealthy Hollywood executives and philanthropists. Tahilramani, who currently faces extradition to the U.S. from the U.K. (where he was arrested in 2020), allegedly impersonated women like Gigi Pritzker, a billionaire producer and philanthropist; Wendi Murdoch, the wife of Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch; and Christine Hearst Schwarzman, a corporate lawyer and spouse of private-equity baron Stephen Schwarzman. The Hollywood Reporter first covered Tahilramani’s elaborate con in 2018; the tale has since been immortalized in a short film and podcast, with a book forthcoming.
Of course, not all billionaire impersonators are brought to justice; few know that better than Richard Branson, the British billionaire behind space company Virgin Galactic. Branson’s name and likeness have been employed in fraudulent schemes on several occasions. In 2017, a scammer impersonating Branson stole $2 million from a U.S. businessman who thought he was providing an emergency loan for disaster relief after Hurricane Irma struck the British Virgin Islands. (It’s unclear whether the case was ever solved; a rep for the billionaire could not confirm). Branson warned in 2018, and again in 2019, about his impersonators promoting financial and cryptocurrency scams. Branson’s turned into something of an anti-scam advocate: Virgin now operates a ‘Report a Scam’ portal; Branson narrated an animated video warning about virtual impersonators; and last November, Branson demanded then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson crack down on scammy online ads.
Branson’s impersonator problem began in earnest in 2017, “following a wave of bitcoin-related scamming activity,” a Virgin Group spokesperson told Forbes in August 2020. His team has “dealt” with “hundreds of instances of fake sites and fraudsters impersonating me or my team online,” they said.
If Branson’s fame drew fraudsters to him, then generosity is what afflicted MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist (and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) who’s given away $12.7 billion to over 1,250 organizations since mid-2020. Scott’s giving spree was so widespread and discreet that many real recipients thought Scott’s representatives were con artists. Sure enough, Scott’s giving inspired an actual scamming operation. Scott impersonators and fake employees of a made-up foundation tricked people into paying them thousands of dollars in exchange for promised multimillion-dollar “donations,” the New York Times reported last year.
Chuck Feeney, a former billionaire who famously gave away his entire fortune, experienced a similar problem. The cofounder of retail giant Duty Free Shoppers has repeatedly warned of scammers pretending to be him or employees at his foundation. He maintains a running tab of new phishing impersonators.
In recent years, as fraudsters flocked to cryptocurrency, billionaire impersonators followed. Changpeng Zhao, the CEO of digital assets exchange Binance and one of crypto’s richest individuals, complained last month about the armies of his impersonators trawling around Twitter with fraudulent investment schemes. Scammers impersonating Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, stole over $2 million from cryptocurrency schemes over a 6-month stretch last year, the Federal Trade Commission reported. That period coincided with Musk’s infatuation with Dogecoin, a meme cryptocurrency that he hyped on Twitter and promised to make available as a form of payment for Tesla.
Even more alarming, the future of billionaire impersonators may be in deepfakes—digitally altered videos that construe a false reality. In May, a deepfake published by Bitvex, a phony crypto company, showed an individual that appeared to be Musk. In a stilted voice, the fake Musk, speaking from a stage, pitched Bitvex as a “new investment project” that would reward investors with “30% dividends every day for the rest of their life.”
“Yikes. Def not me,” the real Musk later tweeted.
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