People who run scams don’t just try to dupe ordinary people.

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson is going public about almost being swindled out of $5 million in a scheme in which he was asked to pay a ransom on a diplomat who had allegedly been kidnapped.

In April, Branson said in a blog post, his assistant received a letter purporting to be from British Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon and requesting an urgent phone call. In the call, he was told that a British diplomat had been kidnapped and was being held by terrorists.

“He told me that British laws prevented the government from paying out ransoms, which he normally completely concurred with. But he said on this occasion there was a particular, very sensitive, reason why they had to get this diplomat back,” Branson wrote. “So they were extremely confidentially asking a syndicate of British businesspersons to step in. I was asked to contribute $5 million of the ransom money, which he assured me the British government would find a way of paying back.”

Branson, being a wise businessman, told the caller he would have to confirm the details of the kidnapping because he’d heard of people falling victim to such scams. The scammers then concocted a scheme involving code words and couriers that he should use in order to prove that it wasn’t a scam. Instead of doing what the scammers wanted, he called Fallon’s office, where he was advised that nobody had been kidnapped and that it was, in fact, a scam.

“The Sir Michael I spoke to sounded exactly like Sir Michael,” Branson wrote.

He passed the matter of the scam on to police, who are currently investigating the matter.

That’s not the only time successful and wealthy businesspeople have been targeted by scammers. Another recent scheme used a person claiming to be Branson himself, asking for a short-term loan to get aid to the British Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma.

“When the call happened, the conman did an extremely accurate impression of me and spun a big lie about urgently needing a loan while I was trying to mobilize aid in the BVI,” Branson wrote. “They claimed I couldn’t get hold of my bank in the UK because I didn’t have any communications going to Europe and I’d only just managed to make a satellite call to the businessman in America.”

Unfortunately, the American businessperson fell for the scam, and they’re now out $2 million, which would have done a lot to help the people of the British Virgin Islands if it had actually gone to aid.

After carefully confirming that Branson was in fact Branson, the businessperson felt great chagrin about having been conned.

“He is an incredibly generous person who gives to all sorts of causes, and it is just too sad for words that of all people it was he who had fallen for it,” Branson wrote.

How do you avoid falling for scams? Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission:

Spot impostors. Scammers often pretend to be someone you trust, as they did with Branson and the businessman who was conned out of $2 million. Don’t send money or give out personal information in response to an unexpected request, whether that request is in the form of a phone call, a text message, or an email.

Don’t believe your caller ID. Technology makes it easy for scammers to fake caller ID information. If someone calls asking for money or personal information, hang up. If you think the caller isn’t telling the truth, call back to a number you know is real.

Think about how they want you to pay. Wiring money is risky because it’s nearly impossible to get your money back. That’s also true for reloadable gift cards. No honest company or government office is going to require you to use these payment methods.

Take a breath. Scammers want you to make decisions in a hurry. They may even threaten you (for example, if they’re pretending to be the IRS or a collection agency). Check out the story, do an online search, tell a friend, or consult an expert before sending money.

Don’t deposit a check and wire money back. Banks have to make funds from deposited checks available within days, but it can take weeks to uncover a fake check. When the bank does find out the check is fake, you’ll be on the hook for repaying the bank.

Photo: Prometheus72 /