Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Kiwi's close shave in $240m global scam

Exclusive: Businessman tells of lucky escape after paying thousands in `fees' and flying to Europe to collect - before triggering sting that led to two arrests

Middleman John Chico (pictured)  believed the money existed  while  investigator 
Mike Gillam helped shut down the fraud. Photo  /  Natalie Slade
Middleman John Chico (pictured) believed the money existed while investigator Mike Gillam helped shut down the fraud. Photo / Natalie Slade

A New Zealand businessman lured to Europe in a $240 million email scam made a last minute complaint to police that led to some of the fraudsters being arrested.

The Weekend Herald can reveal an Auckland man introduced the property developer to the West African fraud ring and acted as the middleman in the negotiations.

The businessman, who asked to not be identified, lost thousands of dollars and even travelled to the Netherlands last month to secure the deal despite the warnings of private investigators.

He was promised US$200 million ($240 million) held in a vault if he paid the required "fees" but a private investigator finally convinced him the money did not exist just hours before the transaction was supposed to take place in Amsterdam.

Instead of paying more money to secure the funds, the Auckland man laid a complaint with Dutch police who arrested two men in a sting operation at the hotel where he was staying.

He acknowledged "alarm bells should have gone off earlier".

"In hindsight, it was dumb from this end ... it was a huge learning curve and something I'll never do again," he told the Weekend Herald.

"But bottom line, am I pleased with the result? Yes, I'm delighted because a bunch of crooks are locked up and I am probably the first person in the country to have done it."

Hundreds of New Zealanders have been sucked into overseas-based email scams, but most victims are too embarrassed to come forward and the foreign fraudsters are difficult to track down.

The twist in this case was an Auckland man acted as the middleman between the victim and the scammers in West Africa.

John Chico introduced him to the pair from Benin, known as John Richman and Souleyman Salami, who promised him US$200 million held in a bank in the Netherlands.

Dozens of emails provided by Mr Chico to the Weekend Herald show that he acted as an intermediary in the protracted negotiations that included the businessman paying US$3500 in "legal fees" which he was asked to send by Western Union transfer.

He was also supposed to pay 12,500 ($20,500) on arrival in Amsterdam to Hugo Kennedy, an associate of Richman and Salami, who was to hand over the US$200 million.

The company director hired private investigation firm Thompson & Toresen to research the proposed deal. The investigators warned him that their inquiries confirmed the deal was a scam and to cease all contact immediately.

Despite the warning, the businessman thought the risk was worthwhile and decided to travel to the Netherlands. However, he was persuaded to take Mike Gillam, a senior Thompson & Toresen investigator, as security.

While waiting to meet Kennedy in Amsterdam, Mr Gillam finally managed to persuade him the deal was a scam and to make a complaint to Dutch police.

Dutch detectives moved quickly to set up a sting operation on the fraudsters and Inspector Marco Plover confirmed to the Weekend Herald that two men, one Dutch and one Nigerian, were charged with fraud and forgery.

The police later confirmed to Mr Gillam that the two men were spotted staking out the hotel since their arrival.

Mr Gillam said there was nothing to be gained from a face-to-face confrontation with a "419" scammer, as advanced fraud fees are referred to, who were "unscrupulous men of the worst kind".

"If you are lucky, you will only be robbed. If you are unlucky, you could be murdered. Don't go. If you are still not sure if an email is a scam or not, print it out and show it to the police before you send money or travel."

When visited by Mr Gillam and the Weekend Herald this week, Mr Chico confirmed that he introduced the businessman to Richman and Salami and acted as the middleman in the negotiations.

But he said he believed the US$200 million existed and he would have received 3 per cent commission with Richman if the transaction was completed.

According to an email to Richman confirming the flight and hotel details for the businessman, Mr Chico wrote: "Our gardens seem to be promising good greenery now hopefully will end up with excellent 'HARVEST'.

"Lets keep our fingers crossed that all these projects will be successfully finalised for us all."

Mr Chico said Richman and Salami had not given him "any doubts" and he thought the business transaction was still viable.

However, he conceded he could "unknowingly, unfortunately" be in the middle of a fraud.

"It could be a scam, I'm not denying that. But I had nothing to do with it."

Detective Senior Sergeant Aaron Pascoe, head of the financial crime unit, knew of the case but had not received a formal complaint.

Mr Pascoe gave a warning about online fraud: "If it's too good to be true, it absolutely is. It is a common feature of scams where victims of scams are encouraged to travel overseas where they continue to be used by the fraudsters."

He noted the recent case of Auckland man Trevor Francis Miranda, 68, who flew to Papua New Guinea in the hope of receiving $8.5 million.

The cash never arrived but he was again promised a large payment if he carried a laptop back to New Zealand. Instead, he was tricked into taking luggage on his flight back to Auckland with 1.5kg of methamphetamine hidden inside.

- NZ Herald

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