Victim of Facebook scam syndicate on a mission to save others

Over months of daily calls, fake balance sheets and racing to the ATM in a panic, Deb lost her superannuation and savings to scammers.

Now, whenever she logs onto Facebook, she gets furious.

In her feed is an endless stream of ads featuring Australian celebrities, public figures and politicians spruiking an investment opportunity. 

It’s the same type of post that last year lured the 63-year-old into a debilitating spiral of debt and manipulation that cost her more than $100,000.

But instead of “sitting at home crying about it” she’s on a mission to make sure others don’t “get burned”. 

“A few weeks ago, when I went onto Facebook, there was just one [ad] after the other,” she told the ABC.

“I was furious.

“And that’s what made me start thinking about how can I let everybody know.”

A woman in a leather jacket leans against a car.
Deb is warning as many people as possible about a scam that lures in victims through Facebook ads. 

Victims describe feeling ‘hypnotised’

Every day, Deb gets online and, post by post, comments under each ad she sees with warnings.

She is desperate to catch people’s attention before they click, because what follows is an intricate web of scammer tactics that left her “brainwashed”. 

“If I can stop anybody from losing everything  – and more – I will,” she said.

Soon after registering with an online trading platform endorsed by a fake clip of Gina Rinehart on A Current Affair, Deb was contacted by a man who called himself Daniel.

She would spend the next four months in daily contact with Daniel – her allocated investment broker – chasing funds at his behest. 

“It’s just tragic and amazing how they can wrap you around their little finger and you just totally get sucked up,” she said. 

“I had one gentleman [victim] say he felt like he was hypnotised.” 

A screenshot of Facebook comments about a scam ad.
Deb is hoping to rally scam victims together and pressure authorities to take greater action against fraudsters. (Supplied)

Global syndicates take aim at Australia

Last year, Australians lost nearly $300 million to investment scams, with the majority starting on social media. 

According to cybercrime investigators IFW Global, Australia has become a prime target for vast networks of international syndicates that heavily utilise social media to dupe victims.

IFW Global chief investigator Mark Solomons told a federal cybercrime parliamentary inquiry Australia was among a handful of countries the syndicates relied on for growth. 

“The syndicate masterminds know that the risk of detection, investigation and prosecution by these countries is low and heavily outweighed by the potential rewards,” he said. 

Authorities are aware of the ads, and last month the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released new public warnings. 

The ACCC has taken Meta (the owner of Facebook) to court over the scams in a case that’s still before the Federal Court.

Australia’s richest man, Andrew Forrest, also sought criminal charges against Meta for the use of his image in the ads, but last week the case was dropped by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in the WA District Court.

Deb says each day there’s “more and more and more” of the ads.

A screenshot of a video showing a fake 60 Minutes clip.
The deepfake videos appear to show celebrities talking about the investment opportunities on news interviews. 

From a $380 payment to a $100k loss

A European law enforcement agency identified more than 30,000 Australian victims of a single Israeli fraud syndicate in 2023, Mr Solomons said in his submission. 

The losses from the investment scams were estimated to be several hundred million dollars.

While most victims lost an equivalent of about $US250 ($380), a proportion lost their entire life savings, IFW Global said. 

In some cases, individuals were swindled out of millions of dollars.

The $US250 is what you’re required to pay as an initial investment registration fee.

But, as Deb describes, with your new “best friend” broker in your ear, the sum can easily escalate.

Daniel called Deb every day, five days a week, at the same time each day.

IFW Global says the multilayered, multibillion-dollar scamming networks use call centres with hundreds of workers in various locations around the world.

They have dedicated teams operating on a shift pattern to coincide with the Australian time zone. 

Screenshots of the investment trading platform
The scammers use fake trading platforms that appear to show investments growing. (Supplied)

Daniel taught Deb how to use a platform called Capital B and provided tips on investment trading.

“You do all the keystrokes and all the actions yourself,” Deb said.

“He just shows you and tells you how to do it.”

At first, Daniel let her withdraw small amounts of her profits.

But once she was convinced to upgrade to the $25,000 Silver Plan, that’s when “the scam really started”, Deb said.

“From the start of that $25,000 plan, it took me four months to lose $130,000.”

‘They drag it out of you bit by bit’

The scammers built up confusing narratives over time and caused panic to keep Deb hooked. 

A screenshot of the software for the silver $25,000 contract.
Deb was upgraded to the ‘Silver’ contract. Then the scam really started. (Supplied)

She was turned against her banks and convinced to funnel investments into Olliv Bitcoin machines. 

“They make you worry about having your money in the banks,” Deb said. 

“They really know the tactics to make you panic. And once you panic, you do what they tell you to do.”

The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) says the vast majority of investment scam activity it sees originates overseas, and the fraudsters trick Australians into using cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, because it’s almost impossible to recover. 

And it can also be sent overseas quickly with limited oversight.

After those early weeks, Deb’s requests to access her funds were repeatedly rejected. 

And instead, she was told she owed large sums of money. 

At one point, Daniel said she couldn’t withdraw money because all her shares had dropped and she needed to pay off a $20,000 debt. 

After that was paid, she was struck with a $15,000 brokerage fee.

“They give you a time limit of 24 hours,” Deb said. 

“You panic … You think you can’t touch your money until you pay.

“They drag it out of you bit by bit.”

Recipts from Bitcoin ATMs.
Deb transferred tens of thousands of dollars to the scammers using cryptocurrency ATMs. (Supplied)

It ended with a prayer emoji 

Capital B finally sent Deb a closing agreement to sign saying she would receive all her money on 31 October. 

“I was sitting here happy as Larry thinking I would be getting $290,000,” she said.

But, as the date approached, she was told her money was stuck until she paid a blockchain fee of $30,000.

WhatsApp messages between a scammer and a victim.
Deb says she was brainwashed by Daniel over months of constant messages and calls.(Supplied)

Deb wrote to Daniel pleading with him to help. 

“This will kill me,” she told him.

All he sent back was the emoji that “looks like it’s saying prayers”.

“And then he just faded away,” she said.

“That was about the last I heard from him.”

Calls for accountability

Deb wrote to her bank, ANZ, to try to retrieve funds, and reported the incident with the ACCC.

After conducting an investigation, ANZ said it was unable to compensate her but transferred her $2000 as “a goodwill gesture”.

Last month, the ACCC sent Deb a letter saying it was working with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and she should consider filing a police report. 

Deb had already lodged reports with the AFP, the Australian Cyber Securities Centre and even Action Fraud Police UK.

No Australian authorities have been in touch for a statement or further information.

Mr Solomons has accused ASIC of not doing enough to tackle international cybercrime, saying it has “focused almost entirely on local offenders”.

An ASIC spokesperson told the ABC the commission’s powers did not extend to foreign jurisdictions, but it was working with other agencies to support its investigations and it routinely shared information with international regulators. 

They said ASIC had been focusing its attention on scam detection and disruption, stopping them at the source by removing harmful websites.

But they said stopping the growth of investment scams required “a whole-of-financial system response” which included digital platforms coming to the table and doing more to detect and prevent scammers from using their sites.

A screenshot of a fake video showing Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Deepfake videos of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are among the ads in heavy circulation across social media. (AAP)

Meta has said “scammers present many challenges” and it is working across industries and governments to find new ways to stop them.

But the government is proposing a raft of changes in a new mandatory code of practice for social media companies that aims to make them more accountable. 

Minister for Financial Services Stephen Jones told the ABC last month he intended to compel social media sites such as Facebook, through the new code, to compensate victims who lose money through a scam advertised on their platform.

Deb has welcomed the recent comments from the government, but worries too many more vulnerable people will get swindled while authorities chase their tails. 

She says many of the victims she hears from are retirees and pensioners. 

Deb says she’ll continue to raise awareness of the problem and she wants other victims to speak out, come together for a class action and “get angry”.

“That’s when we do our best this work,” she said. 

“I’ve got my fingers in everybody’s pot, and I’m going to push as many buttons as I can.”

© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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  1. Look I see all these fake investment schemes on my feeds too. I think everyone must do. I can see through them as I think most people can but apparently there are some people who think these scams are real. I feel sorry for them but if they choose to risk their money with these people then that is their choice and the losses are theirs to bear.
    Don’t go looking for a nanny state to protect you from your own poor decisions.
    Having said that I do think our authorities could be doing more to warn people about the dangers of participating in these online scams most of which seem to originate on Facebook.
    But at the end of the day it’s down to the individual to choose what they do with their money however foolish that might be.

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