France: Minister suffers ID theft

No one is safe.

The fake French minister in a silicone mask who stole millions

By Hugh Schofield BBC News, Paris
20 June 2019

Identity theft is said to be the world's fastest-growing crime, but in sheer chutzpah there can be few cons to match the story of the fake French minister and his silicone mask.

For two years from late 2015, an individual or individuals impersonating France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, scammed an estimated €80m (£70m; $90m) from wealthy victims including the Aga Khan and the owner of Château Margaux wines.

The hustle required targets to believe they were being contacted by Mr Le Drian, who then requested financial help to pay ransoms for journalists being held hostage by Islamists in the Middle East.

Since France officially does not pay ransoms to hostage-takers, the fake Le Drian assured payments could not be traced and asked for the funds to be placed in a bank in China.

Many of those approached smelled a rat and rang off.

But, some didn't - enough for it to become one of the most outlandish and successful rackets of recent times.

Why impersonate a minister?
"Everything about the story is exceptional," said Delphine Meillet, lawyer to Mr Le Drian, who is now France's foreign minister.

"They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it!"

Why Jean-Yves Le Drian was chosen has not been fully explained.

Presumably the fact that as defence minister he might be in charge of ransom demands was part if it, but another factor may have been his relative obscurity.

Before 2012, Mr Le Drian had been a Socialist politician in Brittany. Someone with a higher international profile would have been harder to carry off.

The case is now under judicial investigation in France, with suspicions centring on a convicted French-Israeli con-artist called Gilbert Chikli.

He is currently in jail in Paris following extradition from Ukraine and faces charges of organised fraud and usurpation of identity.

Chikli, of Tunisian Jewish background, grew up in the working-class Belleville neighbourhood of northeast Paris.

In 2015, Chikli was found guilty of scamming money out of French corporations by pretending to be their chief executive. But by this time he was living in Israel, which doesn't often extradite its nationals.

According to investigators, Chikli's first move against the minister came shortly after his conviction in a bid to get the Tunisian government to pay for a number of Tiger helicopters that had never actually been ordered.

A contract apparently signed by the minister demanded millions of euros, but was spotted as a fake at the last moment.

The fraud then switched direction, targeting "friends of France", who were asked to contribute to the ransoms.

According to Ms Meillet, there were scores of calls to business leaders and heads of African governments, but also to church leaders such as the Archbishop of Bordeaux and charities like the Aids foundation, Sidaction.

How the scam worked
The system started with an initial telephone call from someone claiming to be a member of Mr Le Drian's inner circle, such as his special adviser Jean-Claude Mallet. This person would then arrange a conversation with the "minister" himself.

Initially these "ministerial" calls were also over the phone. But then - in an effort to be more convincing - the scam went up a level, to video.

Now the fake Le Drian not only had to sound like the defence minister, he had to look like him, too.

So, in meetings arranged on Skype, the fraudster wore a custom-made Le Drian mask and sat in a facsmile of Le Drian's ministerial office, complete with flags and portrait of then-President François Hollande.

The ruse would still have been detectable, but the gang - it's assumed they were several - had the impostor badly lit and at some distance from the camera.

They also made sure the connection was bad and only lasted a short time - just enough to put out the bait.

"Looking back now I ask myself a lot of questions. But it did look like him!" Guy-Petrus Lignac, of the Petrus wine dynasty, told a France Télévisions documentary.

"And he was asking for my help as a service for the state! It's scary because maybe if he had asked for less money, I might have said yes."

Ms Meillet has a long list of victims whose names are attached to the judicial dossier.

For obvious reasons none wished to talk. Of the €80m that was scammed, more than half the sum came from an unnamed Turkish businessman. The Aga Khan lost €18m.

One who did not fall for the trap was Senegalese leader Macky Sall.

This was because the fake Le Drian made the basic error of addressing the president with the polite French vous. In fact the two men know each other well, and when talking together use the familiar tu.

How Chikli was brought back to France
Chikli's luck ran out in August 2017 when he made the mistake of travelling to Ukraine.

Arrested at the request of the French, he told police he was on a pilgrimage to the tomb of a well-known rabbi. But on his phone was evidence he had come to buy a mask.

In prison in Kiev, Chikli lived up to his reputation as a man of massive narcissism.

He paid guards to get him a fridge stocked with steaks and vodka, and then showed it off in a foul-mouthed, social media video in which he also taunted the French justice system.

That may have been a bad idea. Released, he was almost immediately re-arrested and this time extradited to France.

There the story would normally end, except for a strange coda.

Because earlier this year, with Chikli safely behind bars, the con started again.

Reports began to arrive at embassies that once again a fake Le Drian, by now French foreign minster, was trying to finagle money out of influential "friends of France".

In February, three French-Israeli citizens were arrested near Tel Aviv.

For now the calls have stopped.

But the suspicion has been raised that, far from there being a single con-artist, maybe there are several: a whole gang schooled in the art of being Jean-Yves Le Drian.



Seven to stand trial over French fake politician scam

AFP September 20, 2019

Paris (AFP) - French judges have ordered a trial for seven people accused of orchestrating an audacious scam to trick rich targets out of millions of euros by impersonating of one of France's top politicians.

Armed with a silicone mask and plenty of nerve, the suspects sought to convince business chiefs, heads of state and other high-profile prey that they were speaking to Jean-Yves Le Drian, currently the foreign minister.

Two Franco-Israeli suspects, Gilbert Chikli and Anthony Lasarevitsch, are thought to be the masterminds of the group facing trial for fraud, under a ruling by investigative magistrates seen by AFP.

The pair were arrested in Ukraine in August 2017, two years after Chikli was convicted in absentia in France to seven years in prison for "fake CEO" scams in 2005 and 2006.

After fleeing France for Israel in 2009, investigators say Chikli and his associates embarked in 2015 on a new hoax: posing as Le Drian, who at the time was defence minister.

Sometimes they simply called their targets, but in video conferences, a man would also don a silicone mask and pose as Le Drian asking for behind-the-scenes help in delicate matters of state.

- 'I have a gift' -
The targets would be asked to wire money to secretly pay ransom for hostages -- despite France's official refusal to negotiate with kidnappers -- or to finance top-secret anti-terrorism operations.

The group even tried to convince the Tunisian government to put up 19 million euros ($21 million) to buy four Airbus Tigre attack helicopters.

More than 150 people or groups were approached, investigators say, including Gabon's President Ali Bongo and French anti-HIV charity Sidaction.
In the end, only four people fell for the scam, not least Prince Shah Karim al-Husseini, better known as the Aga Khan.

In March 2016, the Ismaili spiritual leader, then aged 79, had his AKDN foundation make bank transfers totalling 20 million euros to accounts in France, Poland and China.

Some of the transfers were later blocked, but eight million euros disappeared without trace.

Another victim was Turkish business magnate Inan Kirac, who wired more than $47 million to Chinese and United Arab Emirates accounts thinking he was paying a ransom for two journalists held hostage in Syria.

Investigators say those who fell for the scam were contacted only by telephone, and did not see the fake Le Drian by video.

Since Chikli's Ukraine arrest and extradition to France, investigators became convinced he led the fraud, based on voice analyses and reviews of his correspondence.

On phones belonging to Chikli and Lasarevitsch they found pictures of a silicone mask of their next impersonation: Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Both men have denied any role in the fraud.

Interviewed by French television in 2010 over previous scams targeting businesses such as HSBC or Alstom, Chikli said he was intrigued by the "game" of scamming.

"You've either got the gift or you haven't, it's like famous actors. When it comes to me, you can say that I have a gift," he said.

His story inspired a 2015 film, "Je Compte Sur Vous" (I'm Counting on You), with French actor Vincent Elbaz in the starring role.